In The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability (Oxford University Press, 2016), Elizabeth Barnes (associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia) offers an insightful philosophical analysis of disability. Her work calls into question pervasive intuitions and assumptions that mark disability as inherently bad or problematic, and instead advances (quite compellingly) a theory of disability that is in fact neutral with respect to well-being. Utilizing the tools of analytic feminist philosophical analysis, Barnes’ examines the concept of “disability” (what it is and what we mean by it), the social implications of disability, and how disability interacts with other features of one’s life to affect one’s well-being. Along the way, she affords a significant degree of deference to the testimonies of disabled folks themselves, a unique strength of her examination. Barnes, a disabled woman herself, draws both on her personal experiences with disability, as well as her technical expertise as a feminist philosopher working in the areas of social philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics, to inform her analysis.
Barnes opens her work by articulating many ways in which philosophical engagement with disability theory has been flawed, with particular attention to the ways in which philosophical analysis with respect to disability has marginalized, obscured, or silenced the viewpoints and narratives of the disabled themselves. She hopes to correct for this both by theorizing in a deeply personal way—she herself is disabled—as well as defending the reliability and credibility of positive testimonies of the disabled. At the outset, Barnes clarifies that in the interest of simplicity, she is restricting the scope of her analysis to physical disabilities, though she is not foreclosing the possibility that what she has to say could be extended to other types of disabilities (5). She also categorizes her philosophical aims as falling within the domain of social philosophy, as opposed to applied ethics or bioethics (2). She sees her work as addressing more fundamental and foundational questions—those which ought to be clarified prior to considering applied concerns (2).
Barnes’ substantive analysis begins with an attempt to conceptually clarify what disability is. She begins by surveying naturalistic accounts, which attempt to locate disability as a feature of particular bodies, though she persuasively dismisses these accounts. She rejects the idea that disabilities are natural kinds (23), leading her to switch her focus from biological accounts to social constructionist accounts. She quickly rejects the purely social model (24), identity-based social constructionist models (33), and also problematizes an adapted Haslangarian model, derived from Sally Haslanger’s social constructionist view of race and gender (32). She thinks that in an attempt to reject the assumption that there are objective facts about particular bodies that are constitutive of what disability is, social constructionist models have gone too far—they have lost sight of the fact that there are objective facts about disabled bodies that also must be accounted for (36). As such, Barnes suggests a more middle-ground approach, which amounts to a mediated social constructionism. Such a view, Barnes contends, can make sense of both the objective realities of disabled bodies and how those bodies are viewed socially, by the disabled and non-disabled alike.
Put more precisely, her view is that disability is a social construct arising from and mediated by group solidarity (44), and that what is contained within the concept “disability” are those things that the disability rights movement is promoting justice for (43). Disability is, on Barnes’ account, “a rule-based solidarity among people with certain kinds of bodies” (46). This view, noticeably, takes into account the “objective” and “subjective” features of disability, thus building on the strengths and weaknesses of naturalistic and purely social constructionist models.
After articulating her account of what disability is, Barnes inquires into the relation between disability and well-being (54). She contends that disability is itself neutral with regards to well-being—nothing about disability is bad in itself. What makes disability a net positive or negative in particular cases is determined not by the mere presence of disability, but by how disability combines with other internal and external circumstances of one’s life (91). She notes that while disability can indeed prove on-the-whole bad for some people in some contexts (as a product of how it has combined with other personal and social facts about those individuals’ lives), we can not infer from this that disability is bad universally, or that it would be bad for all people in all contexts (91). As it happens, disability might be bad for more people given the prejudicial realities of our ableist society, where disabled individuals are subjected to unjust stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes. But, these features of an ableist society are not essential to disability itself, and the bad outcomes that they lead to for disabled individuals are not the result of the disability itself, but rather the prejudicial context disabled individuals find themselves in.
Barnes’ develops a quite useful “bad-difference” vs “mere-difference” distinction, arguing that while many non-disabled folks take for granted that disability is a “bad-difference,” this is both an empirical and a philosophical mistake (71-2). Instead of taking the “bad-difference” view of disability as the default, Barnes argues, we ought to take seriously the evidence that we have to the contrary—evidence that is often dismissed. This evidence includes, importantly, the disability-positive testimony of disabled individuals (103) and the disability pride movement (168). However, Barnes invokes concepts developed by Miranda Fricker (2007) to explain how this evidence is often dismissed—testimonial injustice causes non-disabled people to discredit the testimony of disabled people as systematically unreliable (120, 136). Additionally, disabled people experience hermeneutical injustice, insofar as they are forced to try to understand and articulate their experiences using the dominant conceptual tools (which are often disability-negative)(171-2).
Barnes addresses two important objections to her “mere-difference” view that are over and above the instances of testimonial injustice leveled against disabled people when they make disability-positive claims. These objections are 1) that a mere-difference view renders it permissible to cause disability in a person, and that 2) that a mere-difference view renders it impermissible to remove disability (143). Barnes convincingly argues against both objections, and suggests that a mere-difference view does not lead to either position. There are no plausible objections, it seems, to her mere-difference view of disability as presented here. Her argument that disability itself is inherently value-neutral is quite convincing.
Barnes’ work offers an important contribution to disability theory. Her revisionist account employs the too-often discounted voices of disabled individuals, and allows those voices to shine through in a compelling challenge to the problematic normative assumptions that underlie dominant discourses about disability. Barnes’ work should be read by scholars who engage in any theorizing about disability, as well as by those who have more practical interests in the well-being of the disabled (those who work with/for, serve, or love someone who is disabled). And, of course, Barnes’ work should be read by those members of the disabled community, who through this work, and the disability pride movements it draws on, are reclaiming the power to dictate the meaning(s) of disability and to challenge the harmful assumptions made by those whose experiences as non-disabled do not lend them access to the first-personal, experiential knowledge of disability only available to those who have a certain type of body—a minority body.
Heather Stewart is a current MA student in Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Upon completion of her MA, Heather hopes to pursue a PhD in Philosophy. Her interests are in applied ethics (bioethics, psychiatric ethics), feminist philosophy (epistemology and ethics), social and political philosophy, and queer theory.