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  • “Deaf Spectators” and Democratic Elitism: Participation, Democracy, and Disability
  • Nate Jackson

even a brief review of disability narratives shows that many people with disabilities, encompassing a diverse range of impairments, encounter disruptions in their everyday interactions. Individuals with disabilities report that strangers and neighbors alike fail to communicate with them.1 Instead, people defer to friends, partners, and caretakers to offer some command over the interaction. These experiences might be understood as mere annoyances, part of the experience of impairment insofar as it undermines non-disabled individuals’ modes of interaction, leaving them fumbling, seeking assurance that they are handling the situation correctly. But, read less cautiously, these frustrations are emblematic of a political problem. People with disabilities are often diminished as members of the public, a fact corroborated by astonishingly low participation rates in political activities.2 Instead, the interests of individuals with disabilities are often interpreted and represented in public deliberation by caretakers and supposed experts.

These experiences occasion reflection on the possibilities for public participation for individuals with disabilities. The concerns over public participation are reminiscent of those motivating “democratic elitism” or “realism,” targeted by John Dewey. Legitimate public participation seems to be under-written by citizens having met standards of autonomy and rationality that supposedly outstrip the conditions of many people with disabilities. I look to Dewey’s engagement with Walter Lippmann, who argued that democratic participation should be relegated primarily to experts, to build an analogy confronting the “democratic anxiety” prompted by public participation of individuals with disabilities. In light of Dewey’s call to recover “the Public” through confronting the “Babel . . . of signs and symbols without which communication and shared experience is impossible” (LW 2:324), disability advocacy groups might look to Dewey’s account of communication as a [End Page 30] hinge for recovering the possibility of participation in the public. In closing, I consider a potential challenge to this analogy to the Dewey-Lippmann debate with respect to cases of “radical disability.” Purportedly, because people with severe cognitive impairments cannot speak for themselves, they require a proxy in deliberation. In response, I contend that even in hard cases where a caretaker provides a proxy-like function, we should still hesitate to say that this function indicates a purely passive role for individuals with cognitive disabilities.

Disability and Democracy

One challenge regarding political participation on the part of at least some individuals with disabilities stems from tension between apparent conditions of disability and the demand to embody the qualities of an idealized citizen at the heart of various conceptions of democracy. Such tension exists regarding many forms of disablement. While “disability” is a broad category, focusing on tendencies to treat people with various cognitive impairments as “passive” in political decision making provides a productive point of departure. Insofar as conceptions of democratic deliberation highlight the rational capacities of individual citizens, people with severe cognitive impairments seem to challenge these bounds of citizenship. Confronting arguments specifically pertaining to political participation of people with cognitive disabilities, moreover, allows space for commenting on similarly structured challenges to political participation regarding individuals with physical disabilities.

Many people with cognitive disabilities are understood primarily as passive recipients of care rather than as active participants in democratic life. The apparent demands of participation motivate the notion that people with disabilities are best represented in the public by caretakers. This distance between our conception of “the citizen” and apparent realities of disability forms a capacity challenge to democratic participation. Consider, for instance, Eva Feder Kittay’s comments regarding the political situation of her daughter, Sesha. Sesha has congenital cerebral palsy and severe cognitive impairments. Kittay highlights the injustice of Sesha’s inability to participate in elections, writing that “Sesha cannot vote. Yet Sesha has a stake in who is elected. Her life will be governed in good measure by the decisions of elected officials. Her father, and I, of course, can vote in her interest. But we are three people—each of whom has an interest in the outcome: so we have three sets of interests (or alternatively we are interested parties), but we have only two votes.” She continues: “[T]he interests of a thirty-one-year old retarded woman...


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pp. 30-52
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