Disability and Hermeneutical Injustice

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Ashish George in Liberal Currents:

The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability is Barnes’s attempt to add disabled people to the polyphonic exchange that creates our norms and policies. Progressives and libertarians ought to read it if they want to improve their understanding of what disabled people have to offer society. Barnes’s thesis is that the common view of disability as a tragedy to be overcome is mistaken. Disability is more like being gay or being a woman: complicated as a result of social stigma and some aspects of the condition itself (more trips to the doctor, for example), but on the whole neither better nor worse than alternative ways of being embodied. Disability, Barnes maintains, is neutral with respect to well-being. In 187 pages, Barnes addresses several different theories of well-being in the philosophical literature, draws attention to how disability is constructed by social perceptions, and makes the case for pride as a corrective for shame and ostracism.

Liberals should pay particular attention to chapter four, which Barnes devotes to the importance of firsthand testimony. She draws on the work of Miranda Fricker, whom she credits for delineating the concept of hermeneutical injustice. Barnes summarizes the idea:

In cases of hermeneutical injustice, we harm people by obscuring aspects of their own experience. Our dominant schemas—our assumptions, what we take as common ground—about a particular group can make it difficult for members of that group to understand or articulate their own experiences qua members of that group.

This attenuates the impact disabled voices can have on our politics in the realms of fairness and interpersonal respect.

In discussions about inclusion, political liberalism’s quarry is incorporating groups into a previously negotiated arrangement. The through-line connecting progressives and libertarians is a commitment to procedural neutrality about what constitutes an adequate comprehensive moral perspective for individuals. Like the proverbial watchmaker god of deism, liberalism prescribes parameters, not ultimate outcomes. Unfortunately, hermeneutical injustice throws a monkey wrench into the works.

More here.

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