3. Recognizing the Problem: Expanding the Call

[9] While in 1996 it is still generally accepted that feminist theory fails to recognize or address the issues of women with disabilities, by 1999 a shift is clearly underway. With the publication of Jenny Morris’s Encounters with Strangers: Feminism and Disability, Carol Thomas’s Female Forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability, Eva Feder Kittay’s Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency, Barbara Fawcett’s Feminist Perspectives on Disability, and Geyla Frank’s Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography, and Being Female, the field of feminist disability theory has arrived.
[10] Feminism’s intersection with disability, moreover, becomes an increasingly common topic of discussion in feminist journals, so much so that by 2001 the publication of special issues of the National Association of Women NWSA Journal and the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, on “Feminist Disability Studies” and “Feminism and Disability” respectively, confirm the arrival of this field on the feminist scene. The field of feminist disability studies both addresses the concerns of earlier theorists, and calls for expansion of the insights gained from the critical examination of feminism’s attitude toward disability. It is here that we find a feminist philosophy of disability first appearing.
[11] Along with Kittay, Kate Lindemann and Licia Carlson are among the first to demand an expansion of the feminist inspired philosophical investigation of disability to include cognitive disability. In “Persons with Adult-Onset Head Injury: A Crucial Resource for Feminist Philosophers,” Lindemann argues that her own experience of brain injury “caused [her] to rethink the whole philosophical enterprise.” (n10) In particular, Lindemann calls for a reconsideration of care ethics’ accounts of reciprocity, and, in particular, the implicit assumption that the care giver is never herself disabled.
[12] In “Cognitive Ableism and Disability Studies: Feminist Reflections on the History of Mental Retardation,” Carlson argues that philosophical accounts of cognition and justice ignore, to their detriment, the historical linkage of femininity and “feeblemindedness.” Even the work of feminist disability theorists is marked by a kind of cognitive ableism—“a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of individuals who possess certain cognitive abilities (or the potential for them) against those who are believed not to actually or potentially possess them.” (n11) As many have noted, disability studies is dominated by discussions of physical disability and challenges to the strict line dividing the disabled from the non-disabled, but, according to Carlson, “there is less work on the dangers of perpetuating a form of essentialism that draws a sharp division between the cognitively able/disabled.” (n12) Despite Carlson’s and other’s efforts to address this inequity, there is still more to be done in undoing the binary.
[13] As the integration of feminist and disability studies continues, some unexpected tensions have arisen. Much of what philosophers have to say about disability concerns the justification for killing, or letting die, severely disabled persons. This is especially true for severely cognitively disabled persons. While the work of Carlson and Kittay calls on philosophers to reexamine their attitudes toward cognitive disability, other feminists, in supporting women’s reproductive rights, seem to argue against the full recognition of the personhood of (potentially) severely cognitively disabled persons. The feminist support of both amniocentesis, a procedure designed to identify Down syndrome fetuses, and abortion leads to what some disability scholars have called genocide of the severely cognitively disabled. (n13) At this point there is still much to be done in developing an inclusionary feminist disability studies.

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