Today’s NDPR Forum opens up discussion on Elizabeth Barnes’ book The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability, which was recently reviewed by Stephen Campbell and Joseph Stramondo here. We invite any and all interested parties to discuss any topics in the review or the book, and we are happy to welcome Elizabeth, Stephen, and Joseph to the forum (to discuss however or much or little as they please).

8 Replies to “NDPR Forum: Elizabeth Barnes’ The Minority Body, reviewed by Stephen Campbell and Joseph Stramondo

  1. So, I have not read the book, so take what follows FWIW, but two thoughts after reading the review:

    The definition of disability seems to be viciously circular. A person is disabled if “The rules for making judgements about solidarity employed by the disability rights movement classify [the person’s physical condition] as among the physical conditions that they are seeking to promote justice for.”

    Now, if tomorrow the white supremacist movement began calling themselves “disability rights activists” and began promoting “justice” for their preferred physical condition, I don’t think anyone would be taken in by thinking that whiteness was a disability. Because they aren’t the REAL disability rights movement, which consists of those who are active on behalf of people with disabilities, not people who are white. But as soon as we say that a disability is whatever the people who are active on behalf of people with disabilities say it is, then the definition is obviously circular.

    My second worry is a version of the worry addressed in chapter 5, that if disability is value neutral, it would be permissible to disable people. The reviewers say that Barnes compellingly refutes this claim but don’t give the argument, so I can’t evaluate it. But I wonder if the refutation applies to this modified version: if a disability is value neutral, one does not typically harm someone by disabling them. But that seems wrong; so disability is not value neutral.

  2. I am interested to hear any responses Professor Barnes may have to any portion of our review, especially if any of our objections rest on any sort of misinterpretation of her view. However, I am especially interested in any comments she may have to offer regarding our objection regarding the possibility of systematically biased rules distorting her rule based, social constructionist account of disability. It seems like these rules for what counts as disability to the disability rights movement do much of the philosophical heavy lifting in Barnes’ model (for example, the rules may exclude the “whiteness as disability” example offered by Heath White above). Yet, they remain obscure to me and it seems like, without more clarity about what the rules are or where they come from, her model remains open to these sorts of problems.

  3. Sorry I wasn’t able to get to this yesterday!

    Heath, it’s probably a little quick to label my definition ‘viciously circular’ just from what you read in a review. I specifically talk about the worry you raise in the book. For what it’s worth, I’m not focusing on a specific social movement because it gets called ‘the disability rights movement’. I’m focused on a specific social movement because it fights for the type of things – accessibility in public spaces, better assistive technology, better access to healthcare, better access to home support workers, insurance reform, etc – that in fact make life easier for people with a wide range of non-standard physical conditions. It’s nothing to do with the label ‘disability’ and everything to do with a collective social justice movement based on shared goals and perception of shared oppression. So if the white power movement randomly decided to change their name to the disability rights movement, that would have no bearing on my view. On my view, social movements are individuated by what they do, not by what they call themselves. I’m using the name ‘the disability rights movement’ to pick out a specific social movement, not to pick out anyone who decides to adopt that label.

    Joe, the question about systematically biased rules is a great one. I have two basic thoughts here. One is that we need to be clear on what kind of thing we’re talking about rules. As I say in the book, the people could be wrong about what rules they’re they’re employing (you don’t have to consciously affirm the rules in order to apply them.) HIV in the 80s is a great example. There was a lot of stigma within the disability community about HIV, and people didn’t want to classify it as a disability. But in actual fact, the sorts of accommodations and reforms that the disability movement was lobbying for would of course directly promote the wellbeing of people with HIV, and were the very kinds of accommodations that people with HIV needed. So in that case, I think that HIV was a disability and people were just wrong about what rules they were employing.

    The trickier cases, exactly as you say, are those where a community employs systematically biased rules. We’ve definitely seen this historically and I’m sure it’s going on now. (A good historical example is how people with conditions we often think of as ‘illnesses’, like MS, were initially excluded from disability movements because disabled people wanted to avoid the stigmas of sickness and frailty, and wanted a clear distinction between disabled people and sick people.) In cases like these, I think the view I offer can’t say that something is a disability even though it’s excluded by the rules employed by the disability rights movement. And that’s because I have, at the end of the day, a pretty deflationary view of disability. There’s nothing, on view I defend, that it is to ‘really’ be a disability over and above being a physical condition that has a certain kind of social significance. What I can say, though, is that the movement ought to change it’s rules. So let’s consider some condition x that is currently unfairly excluded from the disability rights movement. I think that x isn’t, at present, a disability, but that it ought to be. And that this gives us reason to think that we need to change our rules in order to accommodate x – a change that would involve shifting the reference of ‘disability’ to a slightly different set of conditions. I think this is actually a process a change and evolution we see a lot – how the disability movement has understood and interpreted which conditions count as disabilities has changed pretty dramatically over the last 60 years, and I expect that will continue. And I can see a view which says that what we ought to say is that there’s a set of physical conditions which really are the disabilities, and the movement is changing to try to reflect that, but that reifies disability more than I want to.

  4. While I’m here, I should take the opportunity to thank Steve and Joe for their insightful, careful, challenging review. It’s given me so much to think about, and I’ve had so much fun talking through these issues with them. There were two more really interesting points that they brought up that I especially wanted to comment on:

    – They say: “Why does Barnes seem to blur the distinction between disability and disability experience? Are we right to think that disability is detachable from disability experience on her view?”

    In a nutshell, no, on my view disability isn’t detachable from the experience of disability, at least in most cases. The example they give – of someone in a coma – is interesting. They’re right that this person is disabled but doesn’t experience disability. But I don’t think it follows that for those people who *do* experience disability, which is almost all disabled people, the experience of disability is separable from the disability itself. On my view, having a disability isn’t merely a matter of having a particular physical condition. It’s a matter of having a physical condition that has a certain type of social significance, or which signifies a certain type of social position. So there is a deeply social element – and not just a physical element – to what it is to have a disability. For the person who is unconscious, this social element is experienced by others – their caregivers, family members, etc. But for those who experience disability, I don’t think the social experience of navigating the world in a disabled body is fully separable from having a disability, because I don’t think they are really two separate things. So I don’t think the experience of disability and ‘the disability itself’ are really two separate things, and I think that follows naturally from the kind of social constructionist view I defend. And that’s why I think focus on the experience of disability is warranted. Indeed, I don’t really thinking talking about ‘disability itself’, abstracted away from how it is experienced by people, makes all that much sense. But this is a consequence of the kind of ‘moderate’ social constructionism I favor that some people might not be into.

    – “Does this line of objection [namely: why isn’t it just as question-begging to believe disability positive testimony as to disbelieve it?] threaten Barnes’ defense of mere-difference views and the Value-Neutral Model, given that it relies heavily (though not exclusively) upon first-person disability-positive testimony?

    I hope not! But yeah, I’ve worried about this some myself. Basically, though, what I take myself to be arguing for is a certain type of epistemic symmetry: we shouldn’t place *more* skepticism on the testimony of disabled people about their own wellbeing (and their valuing of disability) than we place skepticism on other groups about the value of their experiences and their lives. So one doesn’t need to assume, in the abstract, that disability is *not* bad. Rather, our default reaction is typically to believe people when they describe their own wellbeing – we typically grant a type of first-person authority unless we have some positive reason to think such testimony is unreliable, which we sometimes do. So the claim is simply that it’s up to someone who wants to disbelieve the testimony of disabled people about their own experiences to come up with a good reason why that disbelief is appropriate. (It’s a burden of proof issue, I suppose.) And I don’t in general think that such a case has been made for for disability. I also think it’s really important to note that it’s not just first-person testimony that we’re considering for disabled people: it’s disability pride parades, disability theater, disability-centric art, etc. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much of this stuff is out there because it’s pretty sub-culture at this point, but the richness and diversity of disability-positive media (not just personal testimony) is striking, and it takes a pretty substantial confusion hypothesis to say that these people are just massively confused about their own lives and their own wellbeing.

    (Apologies for all the typos I’m sure are in these comments. That’s just how I roll.)

  5. Elizabeth,

    First, I’m aware that, not having read the book, I might raise issues you’ve dealt with thoroughly, which is why I tried to put caveats to that effect on my first comment. I’ll reiterate … take it for what it’s worth (only).

    My worry was not about using a label, exactly. It was rather a question of how one identifies a disability rights movement without a concept of disability. Obviously it’s not the words ‘disability rights movement.’ You suggest it is the movement which “fights for the type of things …that in fact make life easier for people with a wide range of non-standard physical conditions.” But, for example, lefthandedness is a non-standard physical condition, and some people advocate for a less right-biased world. But I have never heard lefthandedness called a disability.

    I guess I am just doubtful that disability can be defined purely in terms of what anybody says it is—-it seems to me that there would be disabilities in the state of nature too. Blind people have a unique social situation, granted, but they also have the same kind of non-social difficulties that blind dogs have, broadly speaking, and it’s at least partly that “impairment” (to use a neutral word) that calls out for justice and accommodation from the rest of us.

  6. Hi Elizabeth,
    first off, thanks so much for engaging with all of us more about your wonderful book! It was a great pleasure to read and review.

    I’m eager to get more clarity on your response to our question-begging worry. So, just to state the worry somewhat differently, it seemed to us that once we find ourselves engaged in a debate about the truth of claim X (however the debate came about), to move that debate forward the X-proponent needs to avoid invoking premises or evidence that can be sensibly accepted only if one already accepts X. Such premises or evidence won’t (or at least shouldn’t) have any traction with the X-critic or someone who’s on the fence. Accordingly, if we’re acknowledging the possibility that people who are badly off in some respect sometimes develop adaptive preferences or appraisals of their lives (with the result that their testimony about their lives and well-being is unreliable), and if the debate here concerns whether or not disabled people are badly off in some respect, then don’t we have to recognize the possibility that disabled people (*if* they are badly off) sometimes develop adaptive preferences and appraisals? If so, how can we make use of their disability-positive testimony as evidence in this particular context–a context where the question of whether disabled people are badly off is being debated?

    In your comment above, you respond by pointing out the importance of epistemic symmetry. I fully agree that, in the absence of some positive reason to think the testimony of some person/group is unreliable, we shouldn’t assume that it is. But I think the above worry is a perfectly general one. We could replace “disabled people” with any other group (males, dentists) and the reasoning still applies. (Joe and I are certainly not wanting to promote any epistemic asymmetries here!) So, I’m confused on how your response speaks to the question-begging worry.

    Also, I love your point about the “substantial confusion hypothesis” and that we’re not simply talking about personal testimony. Seems like a very promising strategy for challenging the adaptive preference suspicions.

  7. Hi Steve!

    “Accordingly, if we’re acknowledging the possibility that people who are badly off in some respect sometimes develop adaptive preferences or appraisals of their lives (with the result that their testimony about their lives and well-being is unreliable), and if the debate here concerns whether or not disabled people are badly off in some respect, then don’t we have to recognize the possibility that disabled people (*if* they are badly off) sometimes develop adaptive preferences and appraisals? If so, how can we make use of their disability-positive testimony as evidence in this particular context–a context where the question of whether disabled people are badly off is being debated?”

    Right, okay, that sharpens the worry for me – thanks! I tend to think of question-begging in terms of warrant: an argument is question begging if warrant for the premises assumes warrant for the conclusion. The conclusion I’m aiming for is just: we don’t have much positive reason to think that disability-positive testimony is problematically adaptive. (For wider methodological reasons, I think we need positive reason to claim that a preference is problematically adaptive – our default assumption should be that preferences aren’t adaptive in this specific way, on pain of mass skepticism about first-person testimony.) I don’t think I need to assume warrant for this conclusion in order to have warrant for the type of premises I employ. The premises I use to get to my conclusion involve things like: the wide-range of disability positive testimony *combined with* the rich and varied lives disabled people lead, the variety of ways (in addition to testimony) they choose to express valuing of disability, the specific reasons we find that disabled people give for *why* disability is valuable, which seem reasonably easy to evaluate on their own merits (such as, e.g., blind people who claim to really value not being self-conscious about their appearance or not being able to stereotype people based on appearance) regardless of worries about adaptive preference, and the type of skepticism and epistemic injustice that would be licensed by assuming adaptive preference without really good positive reason to do so. And I think we can think through and evaluate these kinds of issues without having to first assume that disabled people’s testimony is not problematically adaptive, or that disability is not bad.

    In contrast, I think the person who wants to say that disability positive testimony is problematically adaptive – absent some major independent argument for the badness of disability, which is what I turn to in the next chapter – really does just need to assume that disability is bad. And that seems more directly like a case where warrant for a premise assumes warrant for the conclusion, which is why I’m tempted to describe it as question begging. That being said, I sort of regret using the phrase ‘question begging’, since I think it often gets thrown around too liberally. I probably could’ve done all the work I needed to do with ‘unjustified’ or ‘unwarranted’.

  8. Thanks for the response, Elizabeth. That’s very helpful. I especially like your point about “the specific reasons we find that disabled people give for *why* disability is valuable, which seem reasonably easy to evaluate on their own merits…regardless of worries about adaptive preference.” I think that’s a clear way in which first-person disability-positive testimony can be useful and relevant in a way that sidesteps the question-begging worry. I myself have found it very instructive (and often surprising) to hear from people with a particular disability about the various ways that their disability impacts their activities, relationships, mindset, etc.–things that probably wouldn’t occur to most people who haven’t had similar experiences. I thought your book had a lot of really cool examples of this sort.

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