Monday, November 14, 2011

Cognitive disability and personhood

Author Donna Thomson (The Four Walls of My Freedom) directed me to a book called Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy. It's a collection of essays that address philosophical questions raised by people with cognitive disabilities, which the authors define as those with intellectual disability, autism and Alzheimer's disease.

I haven't read the book yet, but the introduction notes that people with intellectual disability fall short of many of the traditional philosophical criteria for personhood, notably, the ability to reason.

I googled a couple of the authors and came upon this fascinating podcast of a talk by Sophia Isako Wong, an associate professor of philosophy at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Wong's presentation is titled Duties of Justice to Citizens with Cognitive Disabilities and asks: "Do we have different or lesser duties of justice to citizens simply because they are labelled with cognitive disabilities?"

She looks at Harvard philosopher John Rawl's theory of justice which includes the fully-cooperating assumption: "I have assumed...that while citizens do not have equal capacities, they do have, at least to the essential minimum, the moral, intellectual and physical capabilities that enable them to be fully cooperating members of society over a complete life."

Some interpret this passage to mean that people with cognitive disabilities don't count as fully cooperating members of society.

I encourage you to watch Sophia's podcast (I haven't watched the entire presentation). I have taken the book of essays out of Holland Bloorview's library and the content looks fascinating. One of the editors -- Eva Feder Kittay -- is a philosophy professor at Stony Brook University and has an adult daughter with intellectual disability. I think Eva would be a wonderful contributor to BLOOM and hope to seek her out.


Some people (not all) with cognitive disabilities may lack the ability to think in abstract terms, but still possess the ability to reason.

For example, one of the major philosophical differences between Canada and the United States is our continual debate over collective security verses individual freedoms.

Now, my brother will never understand the concepts or ideas surrounding collective security and individual freedoms; however, if I were to ask him, "Do you want to live in a big house while someone else is homeless?", he would say, "For a smart guy, you're really stupid --no!" And, if I were to inquire why, he would reason by telling me, "Because I don't need that much. The guy on the street needs a house too."

Hence, his personhood and sense of humanity is unquestionable.

Can we all say the same?

Matt Kamaratakis


This may be the academic in me speaking, or my unquenchable thirst for clarity (I understand resting in a grey area, however, I've never been one who can permanently reside there), but if people with cognotive disabilities are not granted the rights of personhood and full citizenship, we need to be asking ourselves, "Why?"

Furthermore, I do not give any credence to the belief that those with cognitive disabilities lack the ability to reason. For instance, Ben has decided not to use Proloquo2GO for daily communicative purposes, but when you didn't understand that he wanted to be an "armadillo" for Halloween, he did use his iPad.

Therefore, I argue that we should begin to explore to fundamental questions:

1) Are People with cognitive disabilities denied their basic liberties due to a perceived notion of limited social function?

2) Despite not being able to give back to society in a traditional or conventional sense, "Is their contribution less valuable?"

Thank you,

Matt Kamaratakis