What Is Disability?

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We are all familiar with the idea that some persons are disabled. But what is disability? What makes it such that a condition–physical, cognitive, psychological–is a disability, rather than, say, a disease or illness? Is disability always and intrinsically bad? Are disabilities things to be cured? Might disabilities be merely ways of being different? And what role should the testimony and experiences of disabled persons play in addressing these questions?

In The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability (Oxford University Press, 2016) Elizabeth Barnes argues that, at least for a range of physical conditions characterized as disabilities, disabilities are merely ways in which bodies can be different, not ways of their being intrinsically badly off. She argues that this view of disability as mere difference has important implications for broader moral and social issues concerning disabled persons; she also argues that her view is better able to respect the experiences and testimony of disabled persons.

Listen to Elizabeth Barnes discuss The Minority Body on the New Books in Philosophy podcast

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...Because almost all of us will experience disability sometime in our lives, having to navigate one early in life can be a great advantage. Because I was born with six fingers altogether and one quite short arm, I learned to get through the world with the body I had from the beginning. Such a misfit between body and world can be an occasion for resourcefulness. Although I certainly recognized that the world was built for what I call the fully fingered, not for my body, I never experienced a sense of losing capacity, and adapted quite readily, engaging with the world in my preferred way and developing practical workarounds for the life demands my body did not meet. (I used talk-to-text technology to write this essay, for example.)

Still, most Americans don’t know how to be disabled. Few of us can imagine living with a disability or using the technologies that disabled people often need. Since most of us are not born into disability but enter into it as we travel through life, we don’t get acculturated the way most of us do in our race or gender. Yet disability, like any challenge or limitation, is fundamental to being human — a part of every life. Clearly, the border between “us” and “them” is fragile. We just might be better off preparing for disability than fleeing from it...

Continue reading Rosemarie Garland-Thompson's article: Becoming Disabled

Further Reading

The definition of disability is highly contentious for several reasons. First, it is only in the past century that the term “disability” has been used to refer to a distinct class of people. Historically, “disability” has been used either as a synonym for “inability” or as a reference to legally imposed limitations on rights and powers. Indeed, as late as 2006, the Oxford English Dictionary recognized only these two senses of the term (Boorse, 2010). As a result, it is hard to settle questions about the meaning of “disability” by appeal to intuitions, since intuitions may be confused by the interplay between older, ordinary-language definitions and newer, specialized ones.

Second, many different characteristics are considered disabilities. Paraplegia, deafness, blindness, diabetes, autism, epilepsy, depression, and HIV have all been classified as “disabilities.” The term covers such diverse conditions as the congenital absence or adventitious loss of a limb or a sensory function; progressive neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis; chronic diseases like arteriosclerosis; the inability or limited ability to perform such cognitive functions as remembering faces or calculating sums; and psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There seems to be little about the functional or experiential states of people with these various conditions to justify a common concept; indeed, there is at least as much variation among “disabled” people with respect to their experiences and bodily states as there is among people who lack disabilities. Indeed, some have questioned, in part because of this variation, whether the concept of disability can do much philosophical work...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article: Disability: Definitions, Models, Experience by Wasserman et al.

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