Hypatia 17.1 (2002) 209-213
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Disability, Difference, and Discrimination:
Perspectives on Justice in Bioethics and Public Policy
Disability, Difference, and Discrimination: Perspectives on Justice in Bioethics and Public Policy. By ANITA SILVERS, DAVID WASSERMAN, and MARY B. MAHOWALD. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
Disability studies, like other emergent disciplines (gender, critical race, and queer theory, for example), is midwived by scholars who find that mainstream work has omitted or misrepresented perspectives of oppressed and subordinated groups. While philosophers often have been founders of these nascent fields, professional philosophy has generally been inhospitable to the new voices. Perhaps because philosophy's problems are rarely resolved, there is little room for new conundrums. Or perhaps philosophy resists the notion that it has not always spoken for all people--black or white, male or female, abled or "dis"abled. A similar conservatism is found in the initial approaches. Thesetend to be "applied"--addressing new problems with well established theory. But the adequacy of tools developed for other purposes soon comes up for review--old theories give way to fundamentally new understandings.
Disability, Difference, and Discrimination breaks open the door that has kept out concerns of disability from the discipline of philosophy. While other philosophers have spoken of equality and justice for people with disabilities, with a few notable exceptions the subject rarely gets more than a brief mention. Even less frequent have been booklength treatments of the subject, and none have focused on the grounds of antidiscrimination policies and laws. This book, one in the Point/Counterpoint series edited by James Sterba and Rosemary Tong, follows that series' format in its multiple authorship. This volume, however, is not simply a "point and counterpoint" debate. [End Page 209]
Anita Silvers gives the most contested argument, that "formal justice" alone justifies the ramps, remodeled bathrooms, set aside parking spaces, curb cuts, signers for the deaf, Braille signs, and other accommodations now required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. By formal justice, Silvers means that "just principles of material distribution" should be "neutral in respect to whether persons are normal, or impaired" (16). Just principles, that is, should not attempt to equalize the life chances of disabled persons, but should only remove the legally and socially imposed barriers to equal opportunity. David Wasserman takes issue with Silver's argument favoring "formal justice" alone, claiming that distributive "equalizing" policies cannot be neatly separated from purely formal antidiscrimination. Mary Mahowald steps outside the framework of traditional theories and urges the usefulness of feminist standpoint theory.
Silvers avers to a dispute between the ways that theories of justice have addressed differing outcomes of the "natural lottery." One position (formal justice) holds that justice is served when no one is prevented from seeking their conception of the good by socially produced obstacles. Another (equalizing justice) maintains that a just society should compensate those who draw less advantageous lots, that our equal entitlement to life, liberty, happiness, etc., make it a requirement of justice to equalize our life chances.
It would not seem that the purely formal, "get your boot off my neck" form of justice thatSilvers advocates could justify the large outlays of public and private funds needed to meet the ADA policies Silvers favors. Yet that is just what Silver maintains. She comes to her surprising conclusion by holding that disability is, in large measure, if not entirely, a social construction. She eschews the dominant medical model of disability, and adopting an "environmental model." The "medical model" views the disabled person as physiologically insufficient; attempts a cure whenever possible; and treats the disabled as a chronically ill person. On the environmental model, a physiological impairment becomes a disability in a social setting in which that physiology is not favored. The individual's handicap comes not from the impairment per se, but from the disabling social conditions. The response to disability is to alter the environment, not the person.
All persons now come to be viewed as having some abilities and disabilities, depending on the context. That persons without the use of their...