What Philosophers Get Wrong About Disability

By Elizabeth Barnes

I’m a philosophy professor, and among philosophy professors it’s pretty common to assume that having a disability is something that makes you worse off. More strongly, it’s pretty common to assume that having a disability is something that makes you worse off not simply because of lack of accommodation, stigma, or prejudice. Rather, there’s something about disability itself that’s bad for you—or at least that’s less good than the absence of disability.

Philosophers also like arguments. And here’s an argument that I encounter often from philosophers:

1.  To be disabled just is to lack a substantial ability.

2.  Other things being equal, lacking a substantial ability is bad for you.

3.  Therefore, being disabled is bad for you.

I suspect that many people find arguments like this fairly intuitive. But I think both (1) and (2) are false.

Let’s start with premise (1). Let’s suppose for the sake of argument – though it’s controversial—that disability always involves the lack of a substantial ability. That doesn’t mean that what disability is is the lack of ability. Consider an analogy. Being biologically male involves the lack of the ability to become pregnant. But that doesn’t mean that what it is to be male just is the lack of that ability. There’s a lot more to it than that. But most people don’t think there’s a lot more to disability. They consider the abilities of a ‘normal’ person and subtract sight—then they think that’s what it is to be blind. They consider the abilities of a ‘normal’ person and subtract hearing—then they think that’s what it is to be deaf. And so on.

But that’s not how disabled people describe their own experiences of disability. For example, ‘Deaf Gain’—the uniquely valuable sensory, cultural, and linguistic experiences had by Deaf people. Yes, Deaf people lack (some degree of) typical auditory functioning. But that doesn’t mean that what it is to be Deaf can be understood as simply the opportunities, experiences, and abilities had by ‘normal’ people, minus the ones associated with hearing. There’s so much more to being Deaf than that.

Similarly, we can’t understand what it is to be blind just by considering the experiences and opportunities of sighted people and then taking some away. In her blog ‘Great Things About Being Blind’, storyteller Kim Kirkpatrick talks about some of the opportunities unique to her experience as a blind woman. These include not having any sense of self-consciousness about her looks (or any urge to ‘check the mirror’ before she goes out) and being unable to stereotype or judge people based on their appearance. Yes, her experience of being blind includes the lack of an ability (sight). But it also includes valuable opportunities not had by sighted people.

So even if disability does always involve the lack of some ability, that doesn’t mean that disability just is the lack of some ability. We tend to think about disability as merely a loss or a lack —we think disabled people are simply people who lack ‘normal’ abilities or ‘normal functioning’. In dong so, we tend to ignore the unique opportunities that disability can often bring and to the valuable things disabled people experience that non-disabled people don’t.

Now let’s look at premise (2). Is it true that, other things being equal, lacking a substantial ability is bad for you? At least when it comes to disability, people often assume that the more abilities we have the better (and so they assume that of course disabled people must be worse off than non-disabled people). But it’s interesting that we don’t always think like this. If someone is intelligent and kind and has a fulfilling career and relationships, we don’t think she’s automatically worse off if she lacks artistic talent. Nor would she obviously be better off if we could wave a magic wand and give her artistic talent. She has a rich, full life already.

And we can say similar things for disability. Yes, many disabled people will lack some abilities that we think of as good, important, valuable, etc. But that doesn’t automatically mean they’re worse off as a result. I think it’s great that Michael Phelps can swim as fast as he can, but I don’t think my life is worse than his because I can’t swim that fast. Nor do I think my life would be better if I could swim that fast—I’ve never been very interested in swimming and I spend my time and effort doing other things I think are just as valuable as swimming fast (like philosophy, for example). Likewise, I think it’s great that some people don’t need mobility aids to walk, but that doesn’t mean I think my life goes worse because I do need a mobility aid to walk. I’ve got plenty of valuable things in my life—some of which are deeply connected to being disabled—and plenty of valuable abilities. You can’t make a judgment about my overall quality of life just by focusing on one specific thing I can’t do.

We tell our students that different people are good at different things, and that a big part of taking ownership of their time at U.Va. is figuring out how they learn best, what they like to learn, and what they care about when it comes to their education. People have different abilities, skills, and interests—and that’s a good thing. Part of what we want to foster in an academic community is an appreciation for the ways in which we’re different and for the unique value these differences can bring. Disability is a part of that spectrum of diversity.

Elizabeth Barnes is Associate Professor in the Corcoran Department of Philosophy at U.Va.

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