Making Way: Legal Mobilization, Organizational Response, and Wheelchair Access


  • Jeb Barnes,

  • Thomas F. Burke

  • We first wish to thank the participants in this study. Many thanks also to Samuel Bagenstos, Lauren Edelman, Chuck Epp, Bob Kagan, Mark Kessler, and Susan Silbey for their comments during various stages of this project, as well as the participants of various panels on the study of rights who have greatly stimulated our thinking, especially Michael McCann and Jeffrey Dudas. Further thanks are owed to the anonymous reviewers and editors at Law & Society Review, whose insightful feedback significantly improved the manuscript. Any remaining mistakes and shortcomings are entirely our own. Finally, we thank the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for its generous financial support through its innovative Scholars in Health Policy Research Program, which allowed us to embark on this challenging—but highly rewarding—project. Please address correspondence to Jeb Barnes, Department of Political Science, University of Southern California, Von KleinSmid Center 327, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0044; e-mail: and Thomas F. Burke, Department of Political Science, Wellesley College, 106 Central Street, Wellesley, MA 02481; e-mail:


Questions of how and why organizations respond to legal rights are analyzed in several sociolegal research traditions, including studies of legal mobilization, regulation, and neo-institutionalist accounts of the diffusion of organizational structures. Using original qualitative and quantitative data, this article examines the responses of ten organizations to wheelchair access rights that are found in various provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and related state laws. We find that concepts from each of the research traditions are useful in understanding the sources of variance in response among the organizations in our sample. We focus on four key variables: legal mobilization, commitment, professionalization, and routinization. We contend that these variables offer a relatively parsimonious language for studying organizational responses to the law and for aggregating insights from competing approaches in the literature, both of which are essential to advancing our understanding of the conditions under which law changes society.