The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) combats certain forms of social exclusion, which produce second-class citizenship for many millions of Americans. The ADA appears to reflect a judgment that the physical and cognitive impairments that produce "disability" are irrelevant from the moral point of view, in the sense that they result from an accident of nature; people should not be blamed for being blind, deaf, wheelchair bound, or depressed. But because of those impairments, disabled people are excluded from multiple domains, including the workplace. The duty of "reasonable accommodation" is the ADA's statutory response. On this account, the ADA should be regarded as the clearest reflection, in American law, of an anticaste principle—a principle that raises questions about social and legal practices that turn a morally irrelevant difference into a systematic source of social disadvantage.
Of course, the duty of reasonable accommodation is not absolute. As it is now understood, that duty embodies a requirement of cost-benefit analysis, at least in the loose sense that employers are not required to undertake measures whose costs are grossly disproportionate to their benefits. But what are the costs and benefits of accommodation? Perhaps the most significant contribution of Elizabeth Emens's important and imaginative article is the suggestion that thus far, too little attention has been paid to the existence of "third-party benefits"—benefits to those, including able-bodied people, who did not request the accommodation in question. If, for example, an employer is required to accommodate asthmatic workers by providing a smoke-free environment, many nonasthmatic employees will also benefit. Similarly, if an employer is required to purchase lifting equipment that accommodates workers who cannot lift, other workers are likely to gain from the reduced physical strain.
In this brief Response, I want to sketch a tempting objection to Emens's argument—one that she herself recognizes—and then to show that the objection is unconvincing, in a way that helps to illuminate the moral and political foundations of her argument and, indeed, of the ADA itself. In brief, I think that Emens's claims can be seen as being animated by a suggestion that it is not merely crude, but damaging, to divide the world into two "kinds": those who are able-bodied and those who are not. Her emphasis on third-party benefits and her distinction between usage benefits and attitudinal benefits should be taken as an effort to deepen our understanding of the ADA by showing how conventional divisions between "kinds" help to create the very problem that the ADA is intended to eliminate. By recognizing third-party benefits, particularly benefits to those who are not disabled, we can take a significant step toward eliminating those divisions.
The tempting objection to Emens's argument, in a nutshell, is that because the goal of the ADA is to reduce the exclusion—and hence the subordination—of disabled people, an emphasis on third-party benefits is a distraction, and potentially a damaging one.