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Disability And Moochers

Meep writes something that I think is very revealing about how our society handles disability:

Apparently AT&T assumes that the only people who would want an iPhone would be hearing people. Now AT&T has announced that they're going to offer a data only plan, but if you check the Text Accessibility Plan page, the PDF form explicitly states that you have to have a certifying agent in order to even get the plan. Why should anyone have to prove they are disabled? I suppose this is their way of separating hearing from deaf so that only "deaf" people can have this option.

We tend to think of accommodating disabilities as making special concessions or exceptions to the rules for disabled people. We think that disabilities constitue an extra burden on some people, so we'll give those people a sort of bonus subsidy to make up for it. Thinking that way sensitizes us to worry about moochers -- people who feign or exaggerate disability in order to get the subsidy without suffering the burden that it's supposed to offset. (Elizabeth Anderson wrote a good article some years back taking to task all the liberal political theorists from Rawls onward for using this sort of "equality defended from moochers" framework.) I would suspect it also *generates* wanna-be moochers, by effectively telling people "hey, there's a special bonus here you could be getting."

The alternative to this is to think not about subsidizing disabled people so that they can be on a level playing field with the normals, but rather about rearranging the options so that suitable options are available for everyone, given the diversity of human brains and bodies. There may be limits at which we'd have to fall back on subsidies-plus-mooching-safeguards, but we're far from reaching them. AT&T's iPhone plans, as described by Meep, could be a good example of the second strategy -- offering various appropriately-priced combinations of voice and data, so that people can pick the one that suits their way of being in the world. In this context, a person who can hear but buys the data-only plan would not be getting some sort of illegitimate bonus. But AT&T is so deeply buried in the subsidies perspective that it assumes that it has some sort of nonsensical need to protect the data-only option from hearing moochers.

This is also a reason to be leery of the argument Harry Brighouse mentions at the end of a long post on whether parents should be allowed to deliberately "design" their children, picking and choosing their genetic endowments. He suggests one possible rule would be that design is OK for correcting defects, but not for giving children extra excellences (e.g. you could take a kid who was going to end up 3'8" and make them 5'4", but you couldn't make them, or their naturally 5'4" sibling, 6'3"). This type of scheme would force the government to officially promulgate a blueprint for what constitutes a "normal" body and mind, and labeling variations from that blueprint (at least in one direction) as defects which is is permissible -- or even potentially mandatory -- to correct. If we had a social system that fully accommodated the breadth of human variability, we wouldn't need to either fix so many genetic "defects" (shortness would no longer be a "defect" if we ended height discrimination), nor to worry that people were going to exploit that fixing process in order to get an unfair advantage.


Blogger Elaine Vigneault said...

You make excellent points.

5:27 PM  

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