Disability rights have become a global movement over the past three decades. Katharina Heyer's Rights Enabled offers an interdisciplinary study of the journey of disability rights across international and ideological boundaries. Heyer's story examines the evolution of disability rights policy from its origins in the United States, to Germany and Japan, culminating with the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Using Germany and Japan as case studies, Heyer shows how reformers used the U.S. disability rights movement and the Americans with Disabilities Act as a model to enact change in their countries. Heyer provocatively contends that the globalization of disability rights poses critical questions about the United States' paradigm of civil rights and the limitations of American disability policy.

Heyer locates "two points of contact" that transformed disability rights globally. First, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which inspired German and Japanese reformers to challenge traditional views of disability as an issue of medical deviance and welfare and build on the political promise of civil rights. Japanese and German activists studied tactics and strategies of the U.S. disability rights movement to launch their own movements. Second, Heyer cites the creation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) international human rights treaty in 2006 that expanded the scope of disability equality into a human rights framework.

Rights Enabled begins by retelling the story of the development of the American disability rights movement from the 1970s through the passage of the Americans with Disability Act in 1990. While these first two chapters add little to our understanding of the development of the movement and give little voice to the activists themselves, their strength lies in her analysis of the shift from welfare-based disability policies, which emphasized charity and medical care designed to restore people with disabilities to the workforce to rights-based, anti-discrimination legislation beginning in the 1970s. Heyer argues that American activists viewed welfare and civil rights as incompatible and pursued policies that prohibited discrimination, as opposed to addressing special needs, as a way to gain equal rights. However, as chapter two addresses, the ADA's effectiveness has been limited by the abandonment of welfare policies in exchange for civil rights. The turn to rights —away from welfare— has had important implications for understanding of the adoption of rights-based models by Japan and Germany.

The Americans' rights-based model provides the foundation for her two case studies. Heyer focuses on Japan and Germany, both countries known for their extensive welfare policies for people with disabilities, to illustrate how American disability rights influenced a global model of disability law and politics. Chapter three examines the evolution of disability activism in Germany. Similar to the U.S., German disability policy had long been recognized for its extensive welfare and rehabilitation system for people with disabilities. In the wake of the ADA, "rights tourists," German activists who travelled to the U.S. to learn from American activists launched extensive media campaigns to raise disability awareness in Germany. In 1994, Germany passed a constitutional amendment that forbade discrimination on the basis of disability, radicalizing the German disability movement, propelling it to organize for more extensive rights-based legislation. This, combined with political regime changes, resulted in the passage of the German version of the ADA, The Disability Equalizing Law. Recognizing the limits of the American rights-based model that excludes differential treatment, German reformers were careful not to abandon the positive entitlements provided by the state. The Disability Equalizing Law represents a more comprehensive view of disability rights. It goes beyond the right not to be discriminated against by embracing the recognition of different needs and actively enlisting the state to make equal opportunities a reality.

Chapter four shifts to Japan's disability rights movement. The ADA and the UN's International Year and then Decade of Disabled Persons, beginning in 1981, proved to be two catalysts for the development of Japanese activism. Similar to Germany, Japanese reformers sought to learn from American disability rights leaders. American activists, Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann traveled to Japan to teach a rights-based model that included equal access and independent living. Reformers capitalized on the long history of Western influence on Japan by adopting of U.S. rights-based terminology that emphasized self-determination and pride to frame disability rights as a progressive issue that must be addressed by the Japanese government. While activists made strides in independent living and physical accessibility, the American rights-based model posed tremendous challenges to Japanese political, legal, and social norms and activists have struggled to secure a civil rights policy in a state that emphasizes difference. In 2006, Japan ratified the CRPD treaty, opening up the possibility for further reforms.

The story culminates with the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the first international human rights treaty that explicitly addresses the human rights of people with disabilities. Heyer argues that the CRPD treaty "represented the growth of the disability rights model from its American origins which limited rights as antithetical to welfare to a comprehensive equality guarantee in disability human rights law." 1 Furthermore, she credits it for being the catalyst for a second wave of activism and further reforms in Japan and Germany. German and Japanese activists used the CPRD mandates to pressure their governments to enact further reforms. Ironically, while both Germany and Japan signed the treaty, the United States did not. Heyer takes an activist stance in her conclusion. She calls for U.S. advocates and policymakers to reexamine the limitations of the ADA by looking to the CPRD's approach to rights and positive equality guarantees, such as employment quotas. She argues that differential treatment does not have to be mutually exclusive to rights, as it has been made to be in the United States.

One of the greatest strengths of Heyer's work is its interdisciplinary methodology. She effectively combines her fieldwork at Independent Living Centers (ILCs) in Berlin, Berkeley, and Tokyo, and oral interviews with American, German, and Japanese activists, with government documents and policy analysis. Rights Enabled complements recent histories of disability rights that reveal a number of complex, dynamic movements operating at the local, state, national, and international levels. Her analysis of the American disability rights movement follows the standard narrative of disability rights, developing in the 1970s and culminating in 1990 with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Recently, scholars of the American disability rights movement have extended the chronology of civil rights activism and contextualized it within movements in other countries, such as Independent Living in Denmark and Norway. Heyer makes a convincing argument for the 1990s and beyond, but I cannot help but wonder how the inclusion of these works could contribute to her thesis about the global transmission of disability rights and their influence on disability policy. Moreover, her emphasis on the influence of American activists on Japanese and German advocates neglects a longer, dynamic history of the global exchange of disability rights prior to the ADA.

Rights Enabled is a significant contribution to the field of Disability Studies and the study of social movements. It brings new perspectives to comparative disability rights, the global reach of social movements, and the uses and limitations of rights-based policies in the United States and abroad.


  1. Heyer, 12.
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