A Narrative Inquiry of Self Advocacy: Rethinking Empowerment from Liberal Sovereignty to Arendtian Spontaneity

Stacy Anne Clifford


Self-advocacy groups, which are run by and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, follow traditional liberal definitions of empowerment that center on the cognitive capacities of citizens. Empowerment counters threats of powerlessness and paternalism, but it also threatens to exclude people with more profound forms of cognitive impairment from political participation. Moreover, cognitive-centric accounts of empowerment fail to fully capture the kinds of trials and triumphs I witnessed while observing a regional self-advocacy office between 2008 and 2010. Using Hannah Arendt’s concept of action, mainly developed in The Human Condition, I rethink empowerment along Arendt’s three dimensions of politics as spontaneous, plural, and public. I provide a narrative account of one self-advocacy group’s monthly chapter meeting, arguing that their combined public presence successfully combats ableist prejudice, even as it fails to imitate liberal understandings of empowerment. My account thus offers critical disability studies an alternative conception of political subjectivity.

KEYWORDS: self-advocates, intellectual disability, grounded theory, subjectivity, politics


self-advocates; intellectual disability; grounded theory; subjectivity; politics

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v33i3.3244

Copyright (c) 2013 Stacy Anne Clifford

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