Toward a Theory of Equality Rights for People with Disabilities

Principal Investigator: Jonas-Sébastien Beaudry
Funding: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council


“relay doll” from Persimmon Blackbridge’s Constructed Identities
Image by Della McCreary.
“Relay Doll” from Persimmon Blackbridge's Constructed Identities

Canadian legislatures and courts have increasingly recognized the equality rights of persons with disabilities, in no small part thanks to the influence of the “social model of disability”, according to which disability is created by social obstacles rather than by medical conditions.

In spite of this progress, disability scholars argue that disability remains marked with stereotypes more than any other grounds of prohibited discrimination because the common assumption that disability makes people worse off connotes a kind of “natural inferiority” reflected in the status of PWD as rights-bearers. The concept of equality (and of “substantive equality”) has a unique purchase in our legal culture, but faces distinct challenges when it applies to disability that have not been fully addressed by legal scholarship.

Two of those challenges, which translate into concrete shortcomings of disability public policies are the polysemy (the multiplicity of referents) of the cultural concept of disability and the social construction of impairments (mental or physical dysfunctions).

My IDG project aims at filling these two gaps, by drawing from the “second wave” of disability studies, the emerging field of the philosophy of disability and my ongoing interdisciplinary work in order to begin developing a more nuanced, operational, theory of equality responding to the complex challenges that the polysemy and the social construction of disability pose. It builds on the still embryonic philosophical foundations of Canadian disability law that is still largely de facto dominated by the social model, itself inherently limited in responding to PWD’s needs and substantiate a more inclusive theory of equality rights.

This research is timely, considering Canada’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the ongoing legislative processes at both federal and provincial levels to create disability statutes, and our courts’ restricted grasp of the unique challenges that disability pose to substantive equality. Indeed, my research will contribute to developing the philosophical undergirding of such norms, sometimes implicitly gesturing at potentially clashing models of disability. My theoretical view of disability as a constructed practice rather than a natural kind informs my methodology, which is responsive to the practice of disability policies (including enacted norms, and their interpretation by governmental actors or use by PWDs); and analyzes the coherence and limitations of their premisses.

Early publications from the Project:

Beaudry J.-S., “Theoretical Strategies to Define Disability”, in David T. Wasserman and Adam Cureton (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Disability (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020)

Beaudry, J.-S., The Vanishing Body of Disability Law: Power and the Making of the Impaired Subject, Canadian Journal of Family Law, (2018) vol. 31, p. 7-56

Beaudry, J.-S. Beyond (Models of) Disability?, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy (2016) 41 (2): 210-228

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