More than 30 years after the publication of Carole Pateman's groundbreaking work The Sexual Contract (1988) and almost 20 years after Charles Mills' The Racial Contract (1997), Stacy Clifford Simplican's book, The Capacity Contract: Intellectual Disability and the Question of Citizenship, builds on the philosophical tradition of examining and challenging the assumptions of liberal political philosophy which simultaneously justify democracy and exclude certain populations from it. In The Capacity Contract, Simplican considers the role of intellectual capacity in democracy, our anxiety around intellectual disability, and strategies to build a more inclusive democratic nation.

Feminist and race scholars pointed out long ago that Enlightenment thinkers positioned intellectual capacity and reason as prerequisites to the exercise of citizenship. Sexist and racist ideologies precluded women and racial minorities from being seen as sufficiently rational and thereby this requirement legitimated their exclusion from citizenship. The problem of the capacity requirement as framed by feminist and race scholars in the liberal philosophical tradition was not the requirement itself, but rather the discriminatory institutions and attitudes that (a) undermined intellectual capacity such as exclusion from education and (b) dismissed the actual intellectual capacity of women and minorities. Rather than reject the capacity contract, many minority groups have instead rejected their status as disabled and showcased their capacities. Even the Disability Rights Movement has often worked within the boundaries of the liberal tradition to re-define and expand the definitions of intellectual capacity to include people with a broader range of abilities and disabilities, rather than reject the prerequisite of intellectual capacity altogether. While an effective strategy for many populations, the success of this strategy rests on the continued assumption that there exists some population of people who is "truly" incompetent and deserves to be excluded.

Following in the footsteps of Pateman and critical contract theory, Simplican challenges and examines the "capacity contract," not just to consider how it has been applied or to play with the flexibility of its boundaries, but to explore the value and workings of the capacity contract in the pursuit of an inclusive society. It is a bold and necessary project. Even more impressive is that she does so in conjunction with field work among self-advocates to consider how the capacity contract affects people with intellectual disabilities and the strategies used a by self-advocates to attain political empowerment.

Simplican argues that the capacity contract has been used as a "domination contract," using standards of capacity to exclude people who are not deemed worthy to exercise rights. Interestingly, she shows that capacity does not have to serve this function. Recognition of the range of human vulnerabilities, and the potential for vulnerability, may prompt alliance, contract-making, and social and political action. Due to our vulnerability, we may recognize the need to join in alliance so that we can use our different capacities to meet varied needs. Thus contracts related to capacity could serve to create solidarity, rather than domination. In relation to this point, Simplican states, "the domination capacity contract highlights all those who fail to comply with compulsory capacity, but the solidarity capacity contract is not an act of closure but a practice, as we imperfectly aim to understand our interconnected political aims" (p. 122). As such, Simplican holds out hope that considerations of capacity may be a basis of political action and unity.

Scholars of philosophy, citizenship, and disability studies will appreciate her in-depth analyses of the treatment of intellectual disability in the works of John Locke and John Rawls. Particularly innovative are her contributions to and criticisms of the growing body of recent work in philosophy that attempts to address intellectual disability and citizenship, such as the work of Martha Nussbaum, Sophia Wong and Lucia Carlson. Simplican also nicely incorporates historical analysis to build and supplement her argument. Drawing on history, Simplican shows how professionals both utilized the promise of the capacity contract to expand their clientele (e.g., if one became competent through education and treatment, one could gain rights) and used anxiety regarding capacity to increase their control over marginalized populations (e.g. unfit populations threatened the nation and professionals were needed to identify, segregate and control them).

I particularly enjoyed Simplican's use of field work with self-advocates to consider strategies of participatory access for people with intellectual disabilities who many not use the same linguistic and behavioral tools expected in mainstream politics. Self-advocates may at times seem to fall short of the requirements of the capacity contract; they may misunderstand information, fail to abide by professional norms, or rely too heavily on advisors. To claim citizenship, self-advocates may be pressured to present themselves as competent and thus the self-advocacy movement itself may potentially enforce the capacity threshold. Interestingly, Simplican draws upon aspects of Arendt to explore political agency among self-advocates and to consider the strategies they use to successfully enhance inclusion rather than exclusion. These strategies include thick alliance, humor, and dance. Thick alliance promotes the use of diverse people's skills in complimentary ways to participate in the democratic process (e.g. one person may be a skilled presenter, another great at rallying enthusiasm, another at understanding the issue). In thick alliance, assumptions about expertise and knowledge are destabilized, and respect is accorded to the knowledge people with disabilities have regarding their lived experience, needs, and interests. Dance and humor provide other means by which to disrupt hierarchy, destabilize ableism, challenge norms, express joy, and build embodied connections. Simplican emphasizes the value of participating - and simply being - in public as an act that resists society's relentless attempts to erase disability and hide people with disabilities. She states, "Demanding that self-advocates cultivate compulsory capacity disqualifies some people with intellectual disabilities from self-advocacy group membership and fails to capture the richness of self-advocates' political action. Revising our idea of empowerment more accurately encompasses all people with intellectual disabilities and better reflects the actual activities and struggles of self-advocacy groups" (p. 115).

The Capacity Contract is a valuable contribution. It provides a nuanced and interesting analysis of the role of capacity in a democracy. I ended the book feeling troubled, though, a sentiment Simplican may have predicted when she acknowledges that alliance, humor, and dance may appear "flimsy tools on which to demand the full inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities" (134). First, Simplican underdevelops the ways that we can create solidarity through a capacity contract. She (a) critiques the use of capacity to exclude and (b) analyzes self-advocates' actions as political agency, but leaves a gap between these two puzzle pieces. Self-advocates eating and dancing in public does not necessarily create solidarity across diverse populations in society nor afford them the range of rights that they may need. On what basis do we build solidarity based on human vulnerability? What does it mean for a society to do so? In addition to micro tools, we must consider the macro-structural components required for a participating democracy. As examples, Martha Nussbaum (2006) suggests that we must ensure a full set of enabling conditions for citizenship, and Sophia Wong (2009) explores the duties of justice we as a society have towards people. 1 It seems Simplican notes the behavioral strategies of activists without attending to the importance of their political demands such as the right to live in the community, to control their funding and services, and to health care. The absence of attention to the macro enabling conditions of citizenship and/or the duties toward citizens or some basis of altering macro relational systems leaves people with intellectual disabilities and their allies with a reliance on "weapons of the weak" against a social system that seems to have no obligations towards its citizens. 2

Moreover, Simplican criticizes Nussbaum and Wong for still excluding the most severely disabled from the exercise of rights, but Simplican may do so as well. By shifting her focus from how capacity has undergirded exclusion to how self-advocates participate in and challenge the political system, Simplican fails to address what rights people with intellectual disabilities should access, the means by which we should determine this, and the social obligations to those, if any, who are unable to participate or exercise particular rights. The Capacity Contract thus leaves key issues of power, access, and participation in rights unresolved. I also would have liked Simplican to discuss the politics of family, capacity, and citizenship. In her book, she reveals a complex family dynamic in relation to her own brother. An exploration of the formal and informal role of family in supporting and suppressing rights seems necessary to address how capacity and citizenship intersect in the real experiences of many people with disabilities. In a book about self-advocacy and citizenship, it also seems relevant to discuss power dynamics of family and disability in academia. Simplican notes that scholars who are family members often cloak care with an aura of beneficence and ignore harm. She does not note, however, that family members, and the nondisabled more generally, may gain privilege and prestige from the stories of people with disabilities. How do we ensure thick alliance is present throughout the academic enterprise as a practice of citizenship, particularly when family members as academics "co-own" the stories? Whose story is it and how do issues of voice and consent play out in story-telling by family members?

Overall, Simplican presents a rich analysis of the role of capacity in classic political philosophy and offers a significant contribution to the field. She would have benefitted from engaging more extensively with other modern political philosophers of disability and to consider macro-structural elements in encouraging solidarity across diverse capacities.


  1. Nussbaum, Martha (2006). Frontiers of justice: Disability, nationality, species membership. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press Harvard University Press; Wong, Sophia Isako. (2009). "Duties of Justice to Citizens with Cognitive Disabilities," Metaphilosophy 40 (3-4): 382-401.
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  2. Scott, James (1985). Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
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Copyright (c) 2015 Allison C. Carey

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