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Social Justice for People with Disabilities

By Eddy Ball
April 2008

Resnik underscored the difficulties of defining society's obligations to its members who have disabilities.
Resnik underscored the difficulties of defining society's obligations to its members who have disabilities. "These are not cut and dried matters of law," he argued. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Moore has been recognized at the NIH level for her contributions to equal opportunity and reasonable accommodations at NIEHS.
Moore has been recognized at the NIH level for her contributions to equal opportunity and reasonable accommodations at NIEHS. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

According to NIEHS Bioethicist David Resnik, J.D., Ph.D., most people respond initially to the issues of accommodation for people with disabilities on the level of personal ethics. However, as Resnik explained in his March 4 talk on "Disability and Social Justice," laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and formal statements of public policy also reflect the tenets of major theories of social justice. Resnik's talk was sponsored by the NIEHS Disability Advocacy Committee (DAC) and hosted by DAC Chair Alicia Moore.

"One way of thinking about the issues of treatment of the disabled," Resnik observed at the beginning of his talk, "is to think about it from the point of view of how I should treat individuals with disabilities." This viewpoint considers questions of respect, dignity and equal opportunity, often with specific people in mind.

However, Resnik continued, the larger question is what society owes people with disabilities. This question involves more abstract reasoning about people with disabilities as a segment of a society and is impacted by theories about the most effective role for government.

According to Resnik, the question also brings up the even larger question of what is a fair or just society. "Scholarship in this area has focused on social institutions," Resnik said, "how a government operates, how businesses operate, how the health care system operates, how the educational system operates."

Looking at stipulations in the ADA, Resnik commented on the ambiguity of its wording in regard to such terms as "a physical or mental impairment" and "a major life activity" because these terms are somewhat vague. The terms imply, but don't define, a standard of normality. Disabilities, Resnik said, can be biological, social and cultural.

Some disabilities, such as deafness, are contextual as well. "There are some people in the deaf community," Resnik added, "who do not consider deafness as a disability" because they view disability as a product of society. In a society of deaf people, deafness is not a disability.

There is also ambiguity in the requirement for "reasonable accommodation." As Resnik noted, institutions with functional historical buildings sometimes can't give people with disabilities equal access without the "undue hardship" of undertaking prohibitively expensive major alterations, and they have often been permitted to use a lower standard to achieve compliance with the ADA.

Because America is a country established in the environment of eighteenth-century social thought, the tenets of three well-known social theories of the time run through debates about the rights and treatment of people with disabilities. Resnik identified these important influences on law and policy as Libertarianism, Egalitarianism and Utilitarianism.

Libertarianism, which is identified with the philosopher John Locke, values the concepts of individual rights and limited government. Egalitarianism, which is associated with Jean Jacques Rousseau, the French Revolution's Rights of Man and, in the nineteenth century, Marxism, values equal opportunity and more equal distribution of wealth. Egalitarian thinkers typically envision a larger role for government to control the excessive exercise of individual rights at the expense of others.

In marked contrast to the theories of Locke and Rousseau, Utilitarianism, developed by Jeremy Bentham and his follower John Stuart Mill, supports the concept of the greatest balance of good for the greatest number. Resnik compared Utilitarianism to cost-benefit analysis in economics and pointed to the practice of triage on the battlefield as an example of pursuing the greatest social good.

As he concluded the talk, Resnik commented on the strengths and weaknesses of the theories and his own preferred blend of ideas. "I actually think the best approach would be equality of opportunity, the sort of Egalitarian approach," he maintained, "but with some practical or utilitarian constraints recognizing that we can't do everything. There really are some economic and technological and other limits on what we can do."

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