Well-Being, Agency, and Disability
Kevin Timpe (PI) (Philosophy, Calvin College).
It is typical for individuals to think that being or becoming disabled would decrease their well-being. Disability rights advocates and disability studies scholars have pushed back against this view, saying that it wrongly assumes that all disabilities make the individuals who have them worse off, and for a number of reasons. For one, the view that all disabilities undermine well-being has often been used to stigmatize and oppress those with disabilities throughout history. Furthermore, the existing psychological literature suggests that disabilities don’t always have this effect. Details such as the kind of disability, severity, and the time of onset of the disability have a substantial effect on self-reporting measures of well-being. Wasserman and Asch, two leading scholars, write that “it is now widely recognized that disabilities need not have a substantial adverse impact on well-being, on any plausible account.”
Drawing on the existing literature, the present project will explore ways a number of specific disabilities impact agency and how that impact in turn effects the agent’s well-being. The relationship between disability, agency, and well-being is important both theoretically and practically. Theoretical investigation will allow us to see that some disabilities have no direct impact on well-being; that some disabilities negatively impact well-being only because of a lack of social structures that could make those with disabilities not well off; and that some disabilities do, in fact, negatively impact well-being apart from social structure. Practically, getting clear on these issues can help equip individuals to advocate better for their own well-being, or the well-being of others with disabilities.
My project will proceed in three stages. In the first, I will argue that there is no single set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for being disabled. Instead, I will contend that disabilities are related by family resemblance, though one that is often very unclear and perhaps even vague. If it is true that there is no single nature of disability, then we shouldn’t expect that all disabilities will impact agents and their well-being in the same way. The second stage will examine specific disabilities affecting executive function and emotions, as well as the interaction between the two, with regard to how they might impair agency and influence well-being. In the third stage, I’ll explore social dimensions of agency. An agent’s well-being isn’t simply a function of facts about the agent, but also depends on facts about the agent in relation to her social environment. In this final stage, I’ll explore issues such as the e↵ect of disabilities on social capital, welfare security, and ways that other agents can help mitigate at least some of the effects of disabilities. I hope to then draw all this research together into a monograph, tentatively entitled Disabled Agency.