Belfer Lecture Examines “Life Admin” Challenges for People With Disabilities


Many of us exert time and energy on the unpaid and invisible chores of everyday life, but “life admin” is less trivial and more taxing than it may seem, and its heightened impacts on the lives of people with disabilities was the focus of a guest professor’s discussion at the Ira M. Belfer Lecture.  

This lecture, titled “The Invisible Labor of Being Disabled and Facilitating Access,” was held April 12 at the Subotnick Center and moderated by Jeffrey D. Forchelli Professor of Law Frank Pasquale. He was joined by scholar and guest lecturer Elizabeth F. Emens, the Thomas M. Macioce Professor of Law and director of the Mindfulness Program at Columbia Law School, as well as the author of The Art of Life Admin: How to Do Less, Do It Better, and Live More (2019). 

Pasquale, who teaches Health Law and served in an advisory role on the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics, described excess paperwork as an enduring problem. For example, he explained, the documentation demanded by insurers prior to authorizing coverage for treatment can delay care and exhaust patients. The “unwinding” of COVID-19 benefits portends further paperwork headaches for millions of Americans on Medicare, Pasquale said. 

“We’re seeing the power of paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles to deeply undermine people's lives and well-being, and this is something that both in her book and in numerous articles written in her extraordinary career, Professor Emens has taken on with great eloquence and acuity,” Pasquale said. 

Among the key issues that Emens addressed was Acheson Hotels v. Laufer, a case the U.S. Supreme Court will hear next term that involves enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed into law in 1990 and amended by Congress in 2008. 

“It’s a case that divides people strongly, though not in the usual way as we think of divisions in this country right now,” Emens said. “It’s not around deeply held beliefs about profound and fundamental matters like abortion or marriage. Rather, this case divides people as to whether the rights at issue even matter at all.” 

Before diving deeper into the Acheson case, Emens discussed the gap between what she called the “inside” and the “outside” view of disability. The outside view assumes that the challenges that people with disabilities face are individual medical problems and that quality of life with a disability is poor. This view also focuses on the costs and limitations for businesses and employers in providing the “reasonable accommodations” required under the ADA. 

Those with an inside view of disability have a more inclusive perspective and, if not currently disabled, they may consider themselves as “not yet disabled,” since most people will become disabled in some manner as they grow older, said Emens. Insiders are also more appreciative of the benefits and opportunities that accessibility for people with disabilities can provide to everyone. 

“Much of what makes disability disabling is the way that the environment is structured,” Emens said. “Changing the environment to accommodate disability may just involve broadening the kinds of accommodations provided in order to include those people neglected by typical design principles.”  

After the ADA passed in 1990, judges had narrow interpretations of it, such as considering people “disabled” only if their major life activities were severely restricted; and overlooking third-party benefits even when considering third-party costs in analyzing what constitutes “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities. 

This runs counter to the inside view which “also appreciates that adaptations and accommodations for disability can benefit more than just the disabled person who needs them,” Emens said. Such “third-party benefits,” range from closed captioning to ergonomic furniture design to ramps to telecommuting initiatives, and, Emens asserts, should be considered when considering the cost-benefit analysis of ADA accommodations. 

The “reasonable accommodation” question is at the heart of Acheson Hotels v. Laufer, which involves Deborah Laufer, a disabled plaintiff from Florida, who filed suit against the owners of a Maine inn whose website did not provide information about accessibility required by law. Laufer is not seeking damages, which are not an available remedy. Rather, Laufer tests websites for ADA violations and has filed over 600 lawsuits to compel compliance with the ADA. 

“Understanding the invisible work of being disabled and of navigating disability will help explain why this case is important,” Emens said. “The case doesn't focus on whether the hotel rooms themselves are accessible or inaccessible. The case is strictly about access to information accessibility on the websites, and whether the websites themselves are providing the information about accessibility… Laufer describes the frustration and humiliation she experiences when facing these inaccessible websites.” 

Once you see the “woeful underenforcement of the public accommodations title of the ADA,” Emens said, “we can see…how vital Laufer’s work is. We can see that every disabled person can’t possibly have time or energy to battle each violation of the ADA just to book a trip, and so someone like Laufer is needed to do this serious labor of searching for violations and contesting them.” 

Moreover, Emens noted, “we can see…how the injury of having to use a different mode of access is not merely inconvenient but is stigmatizing, because it is such a common way that places of public accommodation in this country broadcast the message that people with disabilities are not part of the clientele they seek.”  

In addition to basic “life admin,” people with disabilities are bombarded by other types of admin, Emens said, including medical admin (e.g., doctor’s appointment logistics and billing), benefits admin (e.g., repeatedly documenting disability for benefits providers and employers), and discrimination admin (e.g., addressing discrimination by filing complaints, advocating for relief, or requesting accommodations). 

Joseph Crea Dean Michael T. Cahill, who introduced the lecture participants, pointed out that the first Belfer lecture in November 2000 featured Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg discussing the importance of pro bono service to the legal profession and that the lecture has, over the years, continued to offer “weighty and significant figures discussing weighty and significant topics,” with this year’s event, featuring Emens, the latest example.   

“I am pleased that the Belfer series brings us here today with the opportunity to hear from another Columbia law faculty member, who, like Justice Ginsburg, is a champion and advocate for the marginalized and vulnerable,” Cahill said. 

The Belfer lecture was sponsored by the Center for Health, Science & Public Policy and the Disability and Civil Rights Clinic. It is held in honor of Ira M. Belfer ’33, who was a leading practitioner of corporate, real estate, and trust and estates law for more than half a century, a member of the Brooklyn Law School Board of Trustees, and a generous benefactor of the Law School. The Belfer family created the lecture series to honor Ira, whose generous gift to the Law School endowed the lecture series.