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The State of Disability Policy Research in Public Administration: A Recap

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Katie Leigh Robinson
December 3, 2020

Policy and public administration research is traditionally an interdisciplinary field, providing opportunities for scholars with varied interests to study whatever they want. This interdisciplinary nature also allows researchers in the field to have a broader impact on their country and on society as a whole. As is probably obvious by my writing, my interest in particular is disability and accessibility policy. My wish is to normalize accommodations for people with disabilities and to create a more equitable society that allows for a variety of avenues to succeed. I believe that disability policy is an under-researched area, and that further research will increase awareness and therefore societal equity. To that end, I believe it to be beneficial to recap the major disability policy research performed in the field of public administration.

From a sociological perspective, disability is heavily studied. Since 1980, Disability Studies Quarterly has looked at disability from an interdisciplinary and international perspective. Disability Studies Quarterly is published by the Society for Disability Studies, which is affiliated with the Western Social Science Association. A search for the term “policy” in the holdings of this journal returned only 62 results, most of which examine policies within private organizations. The term “public administration” returned no results. Some articles included to fall into the category of public administration, including an article by Mary Giliberti entitled, “Reforming Medicaid Incentives that Institutionalize People with Disabilities and Destroy Families: A Policy Note,” and an article by Michelle Maroto and David Pettinicchio entitled, “Twenty-Five Years After the ADA: Situating Disability in America’s System of Stratification.” demonstrate that there is research that can be done on the topic of disability policy.

A more focused journal is the Journal of Disability Policy Studies. This journal is published in association with the Hammill Institute on Disabilities in Austin, TX and addresses issues relating to ethics, policy and law as they relate to disabilities. A search for the term “public administration” returned 52 results which cover issues ranging from discrimination to financial crises to higher education. Articles such as Sara D. Watson’s, “Applying Theory to Practice: A Prospective and Prescriptive Analysis of the Implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” and, “Aging in Place: A National Analysis of Home- and Community-Based Medicaid Services for Older Adults,” by Carli Friedman, Joe Caldwell, Angela Rapp Kennedy and Mary C. Rizzolo fall neatly into the traditional research done by public administration scholars and further demonstrate the availability of research questions regarding disability policy and public administration.

In addition to journals and articles, some academic books have been written about disability policy from both a public administration and sociological perspective. Most of these books are distributed by resource or policy centers, such as National Disability Policy: A Progress Report by the National Council on Disability or Disability History: An Important Part of America’s Heritage: Defining the Next Generation by the United States Office of Disability Employment Policy. Other books such as From Good Will to Civil Rights: Transforming Federal Disability Policy by Dr. Richard Scotch or Politics of Empowerment: Disability Rights and the Cycle of American Policy Reform look at the topic of disability policy form a largely sociological vantage point. More “purely” public administration books include Public Administration and Disability: Community Services Administration in the US edited by Julie Ann Racino or Community Development and Public Administration Theory: Promoting Democratic Principles to Improve Communities by Jason D. Rivera and Ashley E. Nickels.

This listing of disability policy research may seem encouraging. It is wonderful to see research emerging about disability policy and public administration, but the topic of disability is falling behind other important representative topics such as female or racial representation. In four top public administration journals, Public Administration Review (PAR), American Review of Public Administration (ARPA), Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory (JPART) and Public Policy & Administration (PPA), I searched the terms “disability,” “female,” and “race” to compare the number of articles relating to these topics. In PAR, there were 258 results for disability, 580 results for female and 699 results for race. In ARPA, there were 119 results for disability, 409 results for female and 397 results for race. In JPART, there were 31 results for disability, 80 results for female and 125 results for race. Finally, in PPA, there were 58 results for disability, 60 results for female and 65 results for race. Clearly topics such as race and gender are vitally important to the field of public administration, but disability is equally as important and is lacking in comparable research.

Based on the evidence I have observed, I must conclude that there is a lack of awareness about people with disabilities and the need to study disability policy in a comprehensive way. It is my hope that my research, along with that of other scholars who are passionate about disability policy, can inspire a new trend of policy research that helps create a more equitable society for people with disabilities.


Author: Katie Leigh Robinson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Dallas. She studies accessibility policy, education policy, and social equity in the policy process. Twitter Handle: @batbrarian

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