Justice, Equality and the Challenge of Disability

Justice, Equality and the Challenge of Disability

July 26 is the anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act. While the l2 year old law has done much to advance the position of disabled people in society, there is much to be done to shape the way we think about the rights of the individual in terms of justice and equality.

Achievement of justice and equality for all remains an unfulfilled goal, in large part because of a "failure of traditional justice theory to do justice to disabled people," say philosophers Anita Silvers and Eva Kittay, organizers of a seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities entitled Justice, Equality and the Challenge of Disability.

For the past few weeks, 15 U.S. scholars of philosophy, and other disciplines in the humanities as well as four guest international scholars are gathered at Sarah Lawrence College to examine recent theoretical work by leading moral philosophers while building an intellectual community that can influence the way we think about the relationship of justice and equality to disability and to lay the groundwork for changes in policy.

Through seminar readings and discussions, participants are developing their own perspectives on the topic, as well as considering how they can incorporate these views into their teaching. "Given the wide reach of disability in the general population, its neglect in the classroom is as striking as its absence in theories of justice," said Silvers and Kittay. "Once we recognize the prominence of disability in both the personal and public dimensions of so many lives, we see how important it is to reverse the omission of this subject in prevailing political and moral theory. An adequate theory of justice should speak to the situations of disabled as well as non-disabled people, " they say.

Both Silvers and Kittay come to the subject from academic and personal experience. Both have enjoyed long careers and have gained national recognition for their philosophical scholarship.

When Anita Silvers graduated from Sarah Lawrence, she knew that disability would be an inescapable factor in limiting how she lived her life. Disabled by polio as a child, her best opportunity for access to education and other social goods was found in the climate of tolerance that prevailed then (and continues to do so) at Sarah Lawrence. During her college years, she and her classmates participated in events prompted by the blossoming of the civil rights movement. At the time of her graduation in 1962, however, medical, law and other professional schools still refused to consider that people as disabled as she could qualify as practitioners. As a consequence, her philosophical work in ethics, bioethics, and legal theory has been directed to exploring philosophical perspectives about the intolerance and social limitations that have shaped her life.

Eva Feder Kittay did not know that disability would soon enter her life when she graduated from Sarah Lawrence several years later. But in 1969 she gave birth to a daughter with serious physical and cognitive disabilities, who has inspired her important work on dependency and dependency workers.

The seminar culminates on July 26. "The humanities has much to contribute to our national understanding of justice, equality and disability," the organizers say.