Theses Doctoral

Disability Integration Outside the Mainstream

Covo, Yaron

Disability rights laws in the United States have been designed to promote integration through a “mainstreaming” model—integrating disabled people into mainstream society. In contrast, this dissertation documents and analyzes the emergence of a different integration model—inverse integration—which involves situations in which nondisabled people enter disability-focused settings or participate in disability-focused activities.

As this dissertation demonstrates, inverse integration is surprisingly popular. For example, in contemporary U.S. society, nondisabled students study in “special education” programs, nondisabled people reside in housing projects for disabled individuals, hearing actors perform in Deaf theatres, and nondisabled athletes compete in wheelchair sports.

By looking outside the mainstream, this dissertation tests the normative underpinnings of conventional integration. For example, by analyzing the integration of nondisabled children into special education classrooms, the dissertation provides an explanation for why interactions between disabled and nondisabled students in schools have so far failed to shift attitudes toward disability. Similarly, by examining the reasons behind nondisabled people’s desire to play wheelchair basketball or learn sign language, it sheds new light on disability rights law’s limitations in promoting relationships. Finally, by pointing to the differing ways in which elite sports organizations treat athletes’ physical injuries, on one hand, and mental health issues, on the other, this dissertation exposes another angle of the stigma surrounding mental health in the mainstream discourse.

In terms of methodology, this dissertation has taken a socio-legal approach, using empirical and theoretical work in the areas of sociology, anthropology, history, and social psychology. In one chapter, I conducted an empirical study (systematic content analysis) of legal decisions. Influenced by disability studies, this dissertation has also drawn upon the personal experiences of disabled people and references memoirs of disabled athletes, scholars, and activists, as well as personal narratives featured in blog posts, op-eds, and legal scholarship.

The dissertation is divided into three chapters. The first chapter, Reversing Reverse Mainstreaming, documents and criticizes the practice of “reverse mainstreaming,” whereby nondisabled children are integrated into classes for disabled students. Using a historical account and systematic analysis of hundreds of administrative decisions, this chapter describes the circumstances that gave rise to reverse mainstreaming and analyzes the practice’s normative underpinnings. In doing so, this chapter exposes a conundrum: On one hand, educators and judges have long justified reverse mainstreaming by pointing to its potential to reduce prejudice through structured interactions between disabled and nondisabled students. On the other hand, reverse mainstreaming often treats disabled students as inferior to their nondisabled peers and imposes mainstream norms at the expense of disability culture. Thus, rather than reducing prejudice, such structured interactions may perpetuate the very stigma and misconceptions they are designed to eradicate. Moreover, as this chapter details, reverse mainstreaming can lead to distributional inequality when it comes to scarce resources. Combining insights from social psychology and disability studies, this chapter proposes guidelines for legal and policy reform aimed at ensuring that intergroup interactions in educational settings take more egalitarian forms.

The second chapter, Inverse Integration and the Relational Deficit of Disability Rights Law, takes a broader perspective. It develops a typology of inverse integration practices and analyzes the interaction of such practices with existing U.S. disability law. It shows that legal and social norms generally hinder the involvement of nondisabled people in disabled spaces or activities. Against this backdrop, the seeming popularity of inverse integration is a puzzle. What is driving this practice? The answer has to do with relationships. Combining insights from sociology, anthropology, social psychology, disability studies, and law, this chapter demonstrates how inverse integration allows disabled and nondisabled people to share experiences, interests, and common language with family members, friends, and intimate partners.

These interactive features of inverse integration stand in stark contrast to disability rights laws’ general failure to protect, facilitate, and reinforce interpersonal relationships. In a society where in-person interactions are becoming less and less common, these relational advantages of inverse integration seem particularly exigent. Drawing upon instances of inverse integration, this chapter imagines what a more relational disability rights regime would look like and proposes specific interventions.

The third chapter, Gambling on disability Rights, identifies a barrier for inclusion of disabled athletes in elite sports: the regulation of sports betting. It argues that recently adopted rules of elite sports organizations, which ban the disclosure of material information that might be used for betting (“anti-tipping rules”), have a detrimental effect on athletes with psychosocial impairments (e.g., general anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder). Because psychosocial impairments may significantly affect the ability of athletes to perform at the highest levels, anti-tipping rules prohibit athletes from disclosing their impairments. This forced secrecy, in turn, may adversely affect athletes’ mental health and might prevent them from claiming protections to which they are entitled under disability rights laws. Perhaps most importantly, given that athletes are public figures who serve as role models for many, these rules might perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental health in society at large. The chapter proposes strategies to resolve this problem by drawing on the rule against insider trading in securities law.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-05-11.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Emens, Elizabeth Francis
J.S.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 7, 2023