What it is to be disabled is to be unable, or at least less able, than others at some specifiable task. This is because we’re all unable, or at least less able, than others, at something. And who are these others that we’re counting as the control group, i.e. the ones one is less able than? I’m not as good as some people at those aptitude tests involving the rotation of objects on the screen. But I don’t know how many people are better at it than I am. And there are some things I absolutely can’t do, like make head or tail out of what passes for philosophy on the Continent. But I don’ t think I’d be given time and a half were I taking an exam in Intro to Contemporary Philosophy.

It would seem, then, that being ‘challenged’ is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. Included in the definition must be a limited set of possible causes to this being challenged. I can’t play in the NBA because I’m confined to a wheelchair. I can’t perform modus ponens because I’ve suffered a brain injury.

But what if that injury took place in utero? What else could explain why I have such trouble with those rotation puzzles? So how do we distinguish between a disability and just not being very good at something? We can’t. And yet we do. Moreover we have to. We have to because it’s been politically demanded of us. 

There was a time – or so I’m told – when it wasn’t. If you couldn’t walk, well, you were just left behind. Unless someone cared enough about you to carry you. The more recent decision that we all carry you was a political one. I’ll help with your disabled loved one if you’ll help with mine. But what disability warrants this being a public burden is the product of an ongoing political negotiation. Any principled distinction, like so many others, is entirely post hoc.

Should this take the wind out of our accommodating disability as best we can? Of course not. But it should dampen our vitriol when others draw the line.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

5 replies

  1. The Statistics Canada reports on disability might interest you. Disabilities are widely defined and several are listed, and the disabled are self identified. If a physical or mental “condition” reduces your ability do do something most people can do then that is a disability. The numbers suggest that some 20% of Canadians have one or more disabilities.


  2. Well, there are a few things here aren’t there? Firstly, who draws what line? And why is line-drawing relevant to anything? Are you trying to suggest that people are drawing the line when it comes to the ammount or magnitude of accommodations made for someone? If so, what is your boggle with that? If you needed more time to understand continental philosophy, then what issue is there in giving you such time?

    However, there is also a big difference between your ability to comprehend continental philosophy and the ability to physically get out of bed, or catch a bus (or some other mundane aspect of daily living). Of course you could argue that some person living in a developing world first has to walk 30 miles to a bus stop, so it is just as difficult for them — but that isn’t true, is it. The things which constrain their bus catching are not the same sorts of things that constrains a disabled person’s bus catching. And why does one person’s shared difficulty somehow make everyone’s experience appropriate? Would it not be better if both people could catch a bus without an extra effort?

    What it is you have done here is an effort of reductionism and are unhappy with the lack of grounding in the definition. Instead, you should be focussing on what the experience must be like: I can guarantee that someone’s severe OCD is nothing like your supposed difficulty with rotating a complex shape in your mind. That there is a difficulty in defining exactly how their experience differs from your experience is not important when you’re focus is on how that experience can be made less difficult or painful. And if you are worried that you have to provide longer time for someone to sit a test, then the question should be does it matter how long the test takes, or that we can determine from the answers whether or not the person understands whatever the test is on? Which is more important: that you have to wait an extra 30 minutes in a testing station, or that a person passes their exam permitting them to complete their degree and move forward with their life?

    We might opine that, when I read a work of Victor Hugo that the experience is indistinguishable from reading a Peter and Jane book: they both contain words on a page in some (relatively) intelligible manner, yet the Peter and Jane book has an interesting story, while the work of Hugo might have well have been written by a depressed monkey on crack. A reductionary analysis would identify both works being the same (words on a page, in English, telling a narrative, in a binding, using similar fonts and so on, so why must we laud Hugo over Peter and Jane? What it is that differentiates them requires more scaffolding; we need to talk about themes, metaphor, zeitgeist, and wordsmithery (not that Hugo has any af any of them). These aspects, which purport to justify why Hugo is ostensibly better than Peter and Jane (he isn’t), depend upon many other justifications and context — as does ‘disability’.

    It is not just that you need to give some person more time to complete some exam or to accept a spoken term paper instead of a written on, but that you need to do so because their experience in meeting the requirements without some accomodation is profoundly miserable and often exhausting — in a way that your experience of rotating images in your mind is a function of a general lack of effort and practice; difficulty comprehending Husserl is lack of effort not lack of ability.


    • Hi Shedlock,

      Some thoughts.

      You say, “In a way that your experience of rotating images in your mind is a function of a general lack of effort and practice.”

      Maybe. But you don’t know that. And isn’t that what many people, such as with dyslexia, have been told by family and friends (let alone teachers, back in the day)? You’re just lazy, you don’t try hard enough. And isn’t it so that some people of high intelligence are very capable of some things in a narrow range, but are unable to do simple activities of daily living? Such as high-functioning autism.

      Also, intelligent people can be quite adept at hiding deficits. Hiding deficits also takes practice over a long period of time (such as a life-time), which for a number becomes a skill and some of these skills are an advantage. If I have the skills to cope with a disability, in what sense am I still functionally disabled? And if I’m taking medication for that disability, which presumably many under a doctors care are (to get the required note), in what sense am I still functionally disabled?

      If with medication, and a lot of accommodations at home — food, shelter, and so on — I can perform as well as, or even better than, the guy working two jobs and attending school full time, why am I given accommodation and he isn’t? (Assuming near-equal aptitude as a baseline.)

      Cf. Oscar Pistorius, some people have advantages from their accommodations that give them the edge over their peers. (The debate about prosthetics in athletics is ongoing, such as the advantages of Pistorius’s blade.)

      If an advantage can be gained in virtue of prosthetics, why might not the same be true for SOME people taking medication or being given extra time? Of course, medications can improve performance, and there are plenty of students taking speed for that purpose. Are those not taking speed disabled relative to their drugged peers? (This question hits home to steroid issues in athletics.) Medications also come with side effects, for some debilitating. So, let’s say I take medication for cystic acne and that medication causes cognitive issues. I might live with the acne to preserve my cognition, but cystic acne can be painful and affect my well-being on a number of levels. So is cystic acne a disability or is it plus my medication a disability, and should I be accommodated for the side-effects of my cystic acne medication?

      Disabled or not, people have different aptitudes and challenges. (Bear with my duh.) Some challenges improve with practice, but sometimes the cost of improvement is too high; e.g. money, time constraints, and so on. I took vocal lessons. Maybe I’d improve if I kept up a rigorous practice over a long period of time. But probably not. Maybe it was my years of tonsillitis, maybe I just suck at singing. Either way I won’t be touring with a choir performing the Messiah after a year of vocal practice (which I did put in), if ever.

      Lines are drawn, to use Viminitz’s phrase, whether I can improve my singing or not, and if I can, whether I make the cut for the choir. If I were good enough for the choir, they need me to show up on time for practices and performances, handle a tour and crowds, and so on. Accommodations also have limits, and who is given which consideration or resources and for what are also vetted.

      Nearly every one of my report cards concerning gym class said, “Pam tries really hard, but….” I was a very active child and youth whose klutziness exceeded my skill. A line is drawn for me not to make the cut for the Olympics, whether Special or ‘abled’ Olympics. So a line HAS to be drawn for whether I require accommodation, whether I’m disabled or not.


  3. I’ve shared the following article in the comment section of At the Risk of Sounding Ableist, but I think it worth sharing here as well for those who might miss it.

    The article is inspired by the College Admissions Scandal in the States, where rich parents figured out they could give their kids an advantage on admissions tests by having them diagnosed with a disability. Scott White examines how scamming adversely affects those with genuine disabilities, and sketches a short proposal for how to deal with the problem.

    Of note, extra time is the most common accommodation. White says, “Advocates of learning disability accommodations have asserted that accommodations don’t provide an unfair advantage.

    But, in fact, research has suggested giving more than 25 per cent extra time provides a competitive advantage to reading disabled students relative to their university peers, and extra time in general helps all students including those with ADHD.”

    Scott White, “U.S. college admissions scandal means more skepticism of genuine invisible disabilities”, The Conversation, May 13, 2019, last accessed 25 January 2022,


  4. A few more articles:

    1) a) Bruce Pardy, Professor of Law at Queens University, argues against accommodating mental disabilities with extra time on exams.

    “Bruce Pardy: Mental disabilities shouldn’t be accommodated with extra time on exams”, National Post, August 17, 2017, accessed 26 January 2022,


    b) A response to Pardy’s article.

    Hallie Brodie, “Why not give some students extra time for exams?”, The Quad, University of Alberta, December 06, 2017, accessed 26 January 2022,


    2) AD/HD is probably the most contentious of the mental disabilities accommodated on exams. There appears to be some evidence to substantiate worries that this disorder is over-diagnosed. If true, this evidence doesn’t disqualify those with the diagnosis from accommodation. But it does add an extra layer to the burden of equity between all students in any given classroom.

    Kazda L, Bell K, Thomas R, McGeechan K, Sims R, Barratt A. Overdiagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Scoping Review. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(4):e215335. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.5335



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