Disability is Social, Political, and Linked to Epistemic Injustice: An Academic Exploration and Personal Reflection (Guest Post)

Guest Post


David, Incarcerated at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, FL


“[T]he risks associated with disability are widely understood to be merely or mostly biological, rather than, as I understand it, significantly social and political” (Hall 2016, 10).

This quote lays the foundation for the argument I would like to raise about what constitutes a person as being disabled. For the purposes of this argument, since there’s many variations that are deemed as a mental disorder, I would like to focus on what I think society sees as the most debilitating, and those are intellectual disabilities. Though requirements vary, the general requirement is a deficit in intellectual functioning, and onset during the development period (Dohmen 2016, 677). The importance of clarifying and understanding where the negative effects of disability lie, and how to help disabled people be enabled instead of disabled, affects everyone. This issue effects everyone in the social and political realms. After all, since we live in a hegemonic world, only those that meet norms are allowed to thrive.

An Academic Exploration

The root of the problematic effect for intellectual disabilities stem from the epistemic injustices that plague the alleged disabled. The word epistemic comes from the word epistemology, which is the study of the “limits of knowledge and justification” (Audi 1995, 233). I will be using the injustices laid out by Miranda Fricker, and the injustices, or “vices”, according Jose Medina. I will start with the latter and what he deems to be the three central epistemic vices, and these are: arrogance, laziness, and closed-mindedness.

To be epistemically arrogant is when a person has “a hard time learning [from] their mistakes, [from] their biases, and [from] the constraints and presuppositions of their position in the world and their perspective” (sic) (Medina 2013, 30-31). This causes one to think there is no resistance to what they think, and their thoughts will go unchallenged (ibid., 32). The role this plays with intellectual disabilities is one where the disabled is forced to be submissive to the norms. This is done by removing the disabled person’s autonomy (more on this later), and then having their decisions made without being asked. The loss this creates is it severely shrinks the collective pool of knowledge to be shared.

The second epistemic vice is called epistemic laziness. This is where the privileged class, or ruling class, have a lack of curiosity about areas that do not directly involve themselves (ibid., 33). The dangers of this is it allows one to maintain their biases, prejudices, and stereotypes despite facts to counter these views. No matter what the intellectually disabled do, it most likely will go unnoticed.

The final central vice according to Medina is called epistemic closed-mindedness. This is where, “one’s mental processing remains systematically closed to certain phenomena, experiences, and perspectives, come what may, and that closed-mindedness erodes reliability, epistemic trust, and one’s general capacity to learn” (ibid., 34). This vice plagues those that are deemed disabled. There are numerous ways that norms, or those deemed not to be disabled, apply this vice in oppressing the disabled. It is where those who are deemed disabled are, unfortunately, treated as if they have no mind of their own.

Fricker, on the other hand, has her focus on testimonial and hermeneutical injustices. Testimonial injustice is simply, “the attribution of less credibility to a speaker as a result of hearer’s prejudice” (Dohmen 2016, 670). More specifically, the area Fricker is most concerned with is what she considers as the central case of the testimonial injustice, and that is identity-prejudicial credibility deficit. This is Fricker’s central case because it is both systematic and persistent, because it intersects with injustices in other areas, and occurs repeatedly over time (ibid., 670-671).

One method of this is “pre-emptive testimonial injustice,” which is where the subject is denied the ability to share information. This is further understood as epistemic objectification, which Fricker gives us an example of. A person comes in and says it is raining, another enters as wet. The first is dismissed even thought the second is wet which proves the first was right. That is because the subjects are viewed not as informants, but as objects to be studied (ibid., 671). This is especially true when it comes to the disabled. The disabled are studied; researched; attempted to be “fixed”, or made normal; but not considered to be a possible informant even about their daily lives in some cases. These injustices rarely exist in isolation because, “the speaker is undermined because of the social identity perceived by the hearer, such that the challenge becomes a problem not just for the speaker’s epistemic and ethical competence, but for the knowledge and value of all who are perceived to have the same social identity” (ibid., 671).

The second form of epistemic injustice is what Fricker calls “hermeneutical injustice”. This is where the person has valid input in their social experience, but their testimony is obscured due to a structural identity (ibid., 673). This occurs when a person cannot explain their experiences due to the persons’ community lacking resources dealing with the experiences of the persons’ social group (ibid., 673).

The primary harm of these injustices listed above is that the person affected is excluded from the pooling of knowledge. The practical harm is when one cannot communicate their experience, which leads to continued exposure to physical or psychological harm. Finally, secondary harm is when one loses knowledge, or epistemic virtues, one may have had if it was not for this gap.

Another major issue is a lack of autonomy. Autonomy is tied so tightly to competence that,”…autonomy is based on the assumption that an individual has the ability to make competent and rational decisions” (Kitchener 1984, 46). By labeling the “intellectually disabled” as incompetent, all autonomy can legally be removed. In doing so, the hegemonic society can seek what they want, and essentially force it upon the disabled who have no autonomy anymore. This means seeking, and forcing, a cure on the disabled, but if you ask the autistic community they will say it is not something to be cured since they do not suffer from it (Fenton and Krahan 2007, 2).

These injustices stretch into the realm of academia. According to Margaret Price, “Academic discourse operates not just to omit, but to abhor mental disability—to reject it, to stifle and expel it” (as quoted in Dohmen 2016, 676). Also, “many philosophers who use (often fictional) intellectually disabled persons as examples do so without consulting disabled persons or the disabled community” (ibid., 678). The reason for this is that the disabled are used as cases to justify abortion, prenatal testing, and animal rights (ibid., 678). This type of injustice undermines their capacity as knowers, contributes to their treatment as inherent sufferers, and may keep them from taking part in other activities that involve sharing knowledge (ibid., 679). An autism researcher went so far as to make a claim that those with autism cannot empathize or understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and that they do not even understand themselves (ibid., 678-679).

I have experienced these injustices in the legal and institutional realm. I am labelled with two different disorders on the autism spectrum, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder. Per the guidelines mentioned in the beginning of this paper, that means I have not one, but two, intellectual disabilities. Despite these alleged “hardships,” I still managed to put this research together.

When I was in county jail, my mother received a Facebook message from a person with whom I used to be friends. In the message, she told my mother how she believed I have Asperger’s syndrome, and sent some info on the disorder to my mother. I mentioned it to my public defender, and the public defender refused to look into it at all. Eventually, after getting a private lawyer, I was evaluated, and then diagnosed.

Afterwards, I asked the mental health service in Pinellas County Jail for information and some type of treatment, or counseling, about every time I saw them for three years, and received nothing.

When I arrived at prison, I started the whole process over, and submitted grievances related to it, but was told that Florida Department of Corrections does not treat anything on the autism spectrum. When I found a counselor at my compound who was experienced in counseling autistic children, I requested to be put on his caseload, but was denied. When they denied me I was told, “inmates are not allowed to pick their counselors”; this is another removal of an opportunity to be an autonomous agent. For six years, I was led to believe there was something fundamentally wrong with me that could not be fixed, as if I would keep committing crimes because of some incurable mental disorder.

Things eventually changed when a professor who specializes in bioethics, especially in the realms of disabilities, took me under her wing. Melinda Hall gave me accurate information on my disorders, and a chance to do some important research for her. I state all this not to give her, or myself, praise, but to illustrate how damaging these epistemic injustices can be, and also the power that a little bit of properly guided support can have. Here I am with “intellectual disabilities” doing detailed research on: eugenics, transhumanism, neonatal care, and biopolitics. Yet, according to the hegemonic society, I am intellectually disabled, incompetent, and some would argue not an autonomous agent. This begs the question, if that is true how could I, an intellectually disabled prisoner, possibly have written this paper?

A solution needs to be found. There are three types of prevention in the literature: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The explanations, and definitions, I give for these terms receive their meaning in the world of genetics.

Primary prevention is where the focus is on making sure the undesired illness, or disorder, does not happen. There are two ways this would work. The first is the adults who would like to conceive a child would be tested to see if they may pass on the genes for an undesired illness, or disability, and if it comes back positive they would not procreate. The other method would be to test the fetus, and if the fetus tests positive, then the fetus would be aborted. Secondary prevention involves genetic screening. However, this focuses on early intervention, and not termination. Finally, you have tertiary prevention. The focus of this is to minimize complications. For mainstream thinkers, this would mean a cure for the intellectually disabled. However, there is another solution to this problem.

Dohmen lays out four “considerations” to reduce the disabilitating nature of these epistemical harms. The first consideration is to be “open to the expressions of pleasure, pain, preferences, and dislikes of even the most severely disabled persons and take them seriously” (Dohmen 2016, 684). These expressions are a way to communicate, and share information, about experiences (ibid., 684). Second consideration is to remember it is always important to be open to testimonies and interpretations of those who are close to the intellectually disabled, after all these people would understand their experiences and coping techniques better than most others would (ibid., 684). The third consideration is for each person to develop their epistemic capabilities to the greatest extent possible (ibid., 685). This will increase the pooling of shared information to help each person advance in what they know and understand. Finally, what I believe Dohmen has as the fourth consideration, “Accepting mentally disabled persons as they are while remaining open to their attempts to share information or interpretations” (ibid., 687). Just because society has forced a negative label upon those deemed to be mentally disabled does not mean the so-called disabled have nothing to contribute, and even in major projects, the small contributions still count.

These considerations, as Dohmen puts it, are all good, but there are those who will lack a desire to change. The consideration are great for people who want to change, but do not know how. However, that leaves the problem of how to reach those who refuse to acknowledge these injustices.

The solution I propose is to force others to acknowledge the mentally disabled. By this, what I mean is to conduct something similar to a “freak show.” Whereas this may sound like it has some negative connotations, it would have a lot of positive benefits. First, it would give those who are ashamed of their differences a boost of confidence. Second, it will give those willingly participate a chance to try to make a difference on a large scale. Third, it would force the mainstream to acknowledge injustices against the mentally disabled. Finally, it will give the disabled a chance to showcase their strength, and that they can make contributions of the same importance as the non-disabled people. One example of this, but with physical disabilities, is when 100 wheelchair users crawled up the steps of the capital in Washington DC to prove a point in the early 90s (Clare 2009). As far as how to go about this for the best effect, hopefully someone else could figure that part out soon. Hopefully, people will spread the information they gained reading this, and apply the knowledge to make this a more epistemically just place we all live in. After all, as my mentor on these matters said about inaction of disability injustices, “Persons with disabilities are placed at risk by dominant discourses, unfortunately supported in bioethics, which devalue their existence. Stigma against disabled people is often lethal” (Hall 2016, 11).

Difficulties of an Education in Prison, while Labelled as Intellectually Disabled

Bioethics is a term that is relatively new to me. Little did I know, I have been involved in it on a very small level since middle school. My mother used to bring me to the nursing home where she worked, and I’d help out there; then, she would bring me to her college classes as a type of guest (this was typically on days they had labs); next, I had uneducated arguments about animal rights and their agency with my parents; this was followed by some psychological and neurological studies on behavior; and, finally, the research I’ve been doing while incarcerated with Melinda Hall on risk. Bioethics became a real fascination for me for a few reasons: I have a habit of having to know why and analyze everything; I’ve always liked trying to help those who, at that time, I thought were worse off than I was; and I’ve always enjoyed arguing. However, it is learning and assisting while in prison on such a complex topic that makes bioethics an epistemically transformative and unique experience for me.

This epistemically transformative experience started in 2016 when Melinda Hall came to do two one-night classes on disabilities. I asked her for information, which then led to bombarding her with questions, and then asking if she had anything I could help out with by researching. When I went over bioethics articles with her, it caused me to open up about my own experiences to compare them to the articles.

When trying to learn in prison, there are a lot of disruptions. There is almost constant noise and movement. To most, this is not an issue, but when your senses are more sensitive than others, and you watch everything going on around you, it makes for a lot of distractions. However, the main difficulties I want to discuss are epistemic in nature.

The first epistemic based difficulty I would like to talk about is the daily social segregation, and stigmatization I face. I end up being socially, and intellectually, segregated. The classmates I have (not all, but a good portion) pick the traits they do not like that I represent, and then become culpably ignorant to anything that contradicts the identity they try to force on me. There are also environmental factors that impede in the advancement of epistemic enhancement.

As I believe any instructor will say, it is hard to teach anything without regular contact, especially when the education is based on only articles and no textbooks. Once every few weeks Melinda Hall would come in, we would discuss articles, and she would answer the questions I had, or some portion of them, before time ran out. This made it extremely difficult starting out. After all, academia-style writing is difficult, especially if not accustomed to it, and then to try to self-teach myself the philosophies, motives, and practices of genetics. Of course, as my epistemic capacities increased, this hardship decreased.

Due to the restrictions in prison, I am fully dependent on receiving material for research, since I cannot find my own material. When research articles are limited, it makes it harder to put the research together. This is a severe disadvantage, but it is also an advantage in its own unique way. It forces me to look at the information from every perspective I can find, and in turn, I learn new arguments and theories from what I have written. My memory works in an unusual way. I do not sit there and consistently study an article, but read it once and make notes. However, it seems like most things outside of bioethics is a struggle for me to learn and remember. It is almost like my brain does not want to work, or is hardwired for only one topic.

Despite the challenges I have mentioned, I think I have been making decent progress in my studies. Within the past year, I have written essays (either in full or some incomplete) on the following topics: epistemic injustices, and how to overcome them; how genetics, enhancement, criminal justice systems, architecture, and disabilities are all connected to public health; a disability based breakdown of the TV series “Deathnote”; an essay the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison accepted as a poster on the creation, enhancing, and normality of stigma, all of the contributors to stigma, and how I theorize stigma can possibly be removed from society over time; how the “Ship of Theseus” arguments are central to the arguments of genetic enhancements from  a strictly objective, non-biased, view; and most recently, using the works of two world leading transhumanists Nick Bostrom and Julian Savulescu to illustrate how ableists and disability activists can agree on the “social worth” of disabled people.


Audi, Robert. 1995. Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to a Theory of Knowledge. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Clare, Eli. 2009. Exile and Pride. South End Press.

Dohmen, Joshua. 2016. “A Little of Her Language.” Res Philosophica 93 (4): 669-691.

Fenton, Andrew and Timothy Krahn. 2007. “Autism, Neurodiversity and Equality Beyond the ‘Normal.’” Journal of Ethics in Mental Health 2 (2): 1-6.

Hall, Melinda. 2016. The Bioethics of Enhancement: Transhumanism, Disability, and Biopolitics. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Kitchener, Karen S. 1984. “Intuition, Critical Evaluation and Ethical Principles: The Foundation for Ethical Decisions in Counseling Psychology.” The Counseling Psychologist 12 (3): 43-55.

Medina, José. 2012. The Epistemology of Resistance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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