Arguing About Disability is a much welcomed collection to both disability studies and philosophy. Collaboration between these two disciplines has been wanting despite the relevance and insight each can offer the other, as this book exemplifies. Contributors come from an array of fields from the UK, Norway, Finland, Canada, and Australia.

The book's self-proclaimed purpose is twofold. First, it aims to supply some philosophically relevant tools with which the concept of disability can be constructed. Second, it aims to put forth philosophically sound arguments to guide definitions and normative practices for professionals and policy-makers interacting with disability. The former aim is accomplished by the book's first section, devoted to metaphysics, and the majority of the second section devoted to political philosophy. These chapters attempt to navigate through the varying definitions of notions employed in describing disability, such as social and medical models, disability, impairment, personhood, freedom, and equality. The kinds of questions raised in these chapters fall under speculative and normative philosophy, meaning that they theorize about the nature of things and then use that knowledge to begin constructing principles. The last chapter of political philosophy and the last section regarding ethics tend more toward applied philosophy1 and accomplish the book's second aim. These chapters discuss the practical implications of differing philosophies on political and moral decisions.

Devoted to metaphysics, the study of what exists, the book's first four chapters focus on defining disability in a way that accurately expresses the reality of the phenomenon. This involves a close analysis of both the medical and social models of disability, including variations of each. Whether the author chooses to reveal his or her personal stance or simply provide the philosophical strengths and weaknesses for several different definitions, each author regards an extreme social model definition of disability to be (at least potentially) problematic. While they are not the first to express a concern with defining disability solely in the realm of social construction, their position is worth noting and separates this collection from a significant amount of disability studies literature. The shared worry is that an extreme social model definition of disability denies the biological component of disability altogether. While aiming to empower the disabled by revealing their victimization by a faulty social construction, this definition, as mentioned in Steven R. Smith's chapter, "Social justice and disability," denies an individual the option of viewing any or all aspects of their disability negatively.

Political philosophy, the third section's topic, is concerned with how societies ought to be structured. Accordingly, the chapters that comprise this section address disability as it pertains to a community or an individual's participation in a community. In the first three chapters, authors develop definitions of personhood, freedom, and impairment, in order to gage the extent to which these concepts reflect the lived experience of people with disabilities. For example, in his chapter, "Personhood and social inclusion," Heikki Ikšheimo explores the multiple ways in which personhood can be attributed, arguing that people with disabilities are often denied what he calls interpersonal personhood. This brand of personhood is only gained if others in one's social environment see one in authority over oneself, consider one's happiness to be intrinsically valuable, and value one as a contributor. Ikšheimo maintains that social inclusion is not fully achieved unless people with disabilities participate in this recognitive relationship. The final chapter under political philosophy questions the potential risks accompanying the notion of a disability community, such as encouraging a victim mentality in individuals.

The ethics section adds to the well-established debate regarding issues that have become commonplace in the field of disability studies (cochlear implantation of infants, prenatal screening and embryo selection, and quality of life) but weighs these issues in light of their philosophical justification. Four out of the five chapters in this section discuss these extremely popular areas of debate regarding morality and disability. While the importance of these issues should not be underestimated and the authors' argumentation is valuable, the discussions do not open readers' eyes to the immensely broad scope of inquiry made possible by uniting ethics and disability studies. The last chapter, "Biopolitics and bare life: Does the impaired body provide contemporary examples of homo sacer?" by Donna Reeve is an exception in this regard. Reeve employs the classification created by philosopher Giorgio Agamben of homo sacer, a human without any rights to the point where killing him or her is not an act of homicide, to prenatal diagnosis, forced psychiatric hospitalization, and behavioral responses to disability by strangers. Although she discusses the use of prenatal screening, she does so in a refreshing new way and amid issues that are less common.

One of the best qualities of this collection is its accessibility to both philosophers and disability studies scholars who may have little or no experience with the other field. The book's introduction by its editors makes a strong case for the productivity of the endeavor before giving a clear and concise overview of disability studies history, progressing through moral, medical, and social models, and providing a brief breakdown of those parts of philosophy that are relevant to the work. The authors themselves utilize very little jargon and when specialized terms are used they are almost always defined. However, its accessibility should not deceive potential readers about its intellectual rigor. For this reason, Arguing About Disability would be a beneficial introduction to the intersection of philosophy and disability studies.


  1. Those chapters that I've classified as speculative and normative philosophy are also in a way applied philosophy in that the concepts and ideas are used to understand a particular phenomenon. Therefore, when authors discuss metaphysics, they only discuss those aspects relevant to their inquiry, which may take for granted other metaphysical truths such as the notion of self, […].

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Copyright (c) 2010 Stephanie Smith

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

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