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This essay uses the history of Sullivan v. Zebley, a famous disability benefits case, to revisit political scientist Deborah Stone’s argument in THE DISABLED STATE (1984). Observing that “[m]edical certification” of disability had “become one of the major paths to public aid in the modern welfare state,” Stone wondered whether policymakers were asking the “concept of disability” to do too much and whether they were sufficiently alert to the concept’s tendency to expand over time.

Filed in 1983 and decided by the Supreme Court in 1990, Sullivan v. Zebley is an example of those expansionary pressures and their results. When the Social Security Administration stopped making Supplemental Security Income payments to 5-year-old Brian Zebley, despite his continuing and severe disabilities, lawyers at the legal aid organization Community Legal Services filed a class action. They contended that not only had the Social Security Administration erred in Zebley’s case, but also that the Agency’s overall eligibility determination process for child disability benefit claimants was too restrictive. The plaintiffs’ ultimate victory before the Supreme Court, and the surprising allies it amassed along the way, illustrate how readily many actors and institutions connected disability to deservingness and embraced disability as a distributional device in the late twentieth century. The post-Zebley backlash against child claimants, however, illustrates how closely the public continued to associate disability with deviance and fraud, especially when they observed take-up among Black citizens. Negative perceptions contributed to the program’s reform in 1996. Congress preserved the new path to eligibility that Zebley created, but also narrowed it. Decisional power, meanwhile, remained in the hands of medical gatekeepers.

This essay casts the Zebley story as one of triumph and tragedy. It was a triumph for poverty lawyers and their clients, who, under hostile circumstances, pressed for a more generous and life-affirming social welfare system. They saw that the boundaries of disability were malleable and they pushed on them. But it remains a tragedy that the best route to subsistence for so many children has further entangled disability with medicalization, suspicion, and surveillance.

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University of Pennsylvania Law Review

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170 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1687 (2022)

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