Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Samaha on the Social Model

New on SSRN: Adam Samaha, What Good is the Social Model of Disability? (U. Chicago L. Rev., forthcoming). The abstract:

A social model of disability relates a person's disadvantage to the combination of personal traits and social setting. The model appears to have had a profound impact on academics, politics, and law since the 1970s. Scholars have debated the model's force but its limitations are more severe than have been recognized. This Article claims that the model, like all social construction accounts, has essentially no policy implications. Its impact depends on normative commitments developed by some other logic, such as membership in the disability rights movement or adherence to versions of libertarian, utilitarian, or egalitarian theory that are triggered by the model's causation story. At the same time, a normative framework within which the social model is relevant will suggest not only policy goals but also an institutional design. These points are illustrated by recent controversies involving genetic screening technology, cochlear implants, and sign language communities. Contrary to impressions left in the law literature, the social model has nothing to say about the proper response to such developments, although the model might have a mediated influence on our sense of the best decisionmakers.
This is a very good paper, and I think it will be an important paper. Nevertheless, I think this whole "nothing to say" business is quite a bit overstated -- and the paper itself seems to acknowledge the point. Some social-model scholars might think that the causation story (that disability is caused by an interaction between physical/mental traits and the environment) itself answers all the key normative questions about disability policy -- and even more might write things that might be interpreted that way -- but I think the overwhelming majority of social-model scholars understand that our broader normative views ought to influence how we respond to that causation story. Most social-model scholars start with liberal-to-left egalitarian views, as well as an affiliation with the disability rights movement, and those normative commitments obviously have a great deal to do with what they think are the policy implications of the social model. I doubt anyone would deny that. I think a lot of social-model scholars use the term "social model" as a shorthand description for both the causation story and these normative commitments. Read that way, the social model obviously has quite a bit to say about disability policy, and I don't think Samaha denies that.

Moreover, the social-model causation story itself has something to say about disability policy, because it helps to expand our understanding of the possible policy responses to disability. If you think of disability as a medical condition, inherent in the person with a disability, then your only possible responses are some combination of cure and charity. What the social-model causation story said was that there's another set of options -- alter the aspects of the environment that make certain physical and mental traits disabling. Obviously, which environmental alterations we make (and whether we want to make them at all) depends on some deeper normative commitments, and for some impairments there is no conceivable set of environmental alterations that can remove the disabling effect, but the point of the social-model causation story is that the option is there far more often than people think. The social model was speaking to policymakers who believed that people with disabilities were unfortunates who were appropriate targets of largesse and saying that charity and cure isn't the only answer. And I think it's been quite effective in that regard. (And Samaha acknowledges the point in the paper.)

So pace Samaha, I think the social model has quite a bit to say. It's not a complete answer to any policy question -- but neither, I'd say, are any of the normative theories Samaha discusses in his paper. Adherents to the social model may overstate its implications, but Samaha overstates its limitations.



Blogger David said...

I'm with Adam on this one. Social model types rarely bother to even tell us what their normative commitments are and if they were to do so, the policy implications would come from that rather than from a causation story. The standard approach in the disabiility literature is to state the causation claim and then jump immediately to policy, skipping entirely the need to state a basis for the policy. Perhaps it is all implicit, but for any reader who does not share the implicit norm, it is bewildering.

Moreover, as Adam shows, the causation story is consistent with any number of normative views (indeed, with any normative view whatsoever). It would seem better to separate the two rather than have a single term that links a claim about joint causation with highly contestable normative claims.

Does the social model open up our eyes to new policy options? Maybe but it hardly seems like "the" important disability theory if that is all it purports to do.

David Weisbach

10:04 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

I'm happy to have this debate in an appropriate format, but for now I'll just note that the same charge has been leveled against welfarism.

11:03 AM  

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