When people think about disability they usually don’t see it as a moral issue. A disabled person supposedly suffers from bad luck, and the problems she encounters while living her life with a disability don’t result from the decisions or actions of her fellow citizens. They are instead caused by ill health or by biological and anatomical inadequacies, things for which no one is to blame. Brute misfortune, that is all.
Of course, a disability can be caused by someone else’s misconduct, for example industrial pollution or paralysis following an accident caused by someone else. However, let’s focus on blameless disability, the kind that is not anyone’s fault.
There’s a problem with the view that this kind of disability is no more than misfortune. The threshold level of normal human functioning that determines the difference between disability and non-disability isn’t just determined by biological facts, but also by social practices and the artificial social environment. For example, imagine a society that has developed technologically up to a point where people don’t have to use their hands anymore. No more computer keyboards, steering wheels in cars, remote controls etc. Let’s assume that everything that needs to be done can be done by programming and brain power (not a far-fetched assumption). A person who loses her hands in an accident will not be considered “disabled” in such a society. This accident will not push her below the threshold level of normal human functioning. In fact, most likely it won’t even be viewed as an accident, but rather a small nuisance, depending on the level of pain involved. Much like we in our existing societies react to a bee sting. It’s usually not disabling.
Now, when we take the same example of a person losing her hands, but situate her in a country such as the U.S. today, then we would say that she is disabled and that she has fallen below the threshold level of normal human functioning. But the reason we say this isn’t simply a biological or anatomical one, otherwise she would also have to be disabled in the imaginary society described a moment ago. The reason we say that she is disabled depends on the social circumstances and the social system in which she finds herself after losing her hands. Because U.S. society has been designed in such a way that people need to use their hands a lot of the time, we say that someone without hands is disabled. The decision to count someone as disabled has less to do with biology and anatomy than with the social practices and the artificial social environment we live in. The level of functioning a person can achieve depends less on her biological or anatomical abilities than on the artificial social environment in which she finds herself.
Hence, disability isn’t just something that happens to people; it’s something that we as a society have decided should happen to people. There’s nothing about our society that necessarily relegates people without hands to the category of the disabled. On the contrary, we have willingly designed our society in such a way that people without hands are disabled. We could just as well design our society in another way. Technology permitting, of course, but technology is also – up to a point – a choice: we just simply decided to develop technologies and the wider social environment in such a way that they don’t really take into account the needs of people without hands.
The fact that we designed our society in the way we did seems to indicate that we don’t care a lot about the disabled, at least not enough to do something for them. And such an absence of care can be viewed as a type of discrimination. After all, until some decades ago, men didn’t much care about the education of women, even though society was quite able to give women the same kind of education as men. The relative lack of education of women wasn’t a necessary fact of life but a choice. And that choice was a symptom of discrimination.
Of course, the analogy is shaky because gender discrimination was and is often a conscious choice, whereas the disabled are only rarely consciously disadvantaged. However, as I’ve stated before, the fact that discrimination is unconscious doesn’t automatically excuse it.