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The Theory of Critical Disability Theory

David Hosking, University of Leicester

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Critical disability theory (CDT) is a framework for the analysis of disability which centres disability and challenges the ableist assumptions which shape society. CDT is derived from the critical social theory first outlined by Max Horkheimer which has today become a diverse family of critical theories which offer various approaches to social inquiry. The components of CDT are often approached within an interdisciplinary 'Disability Studies' framework, but, by grounding CDT within the critical theory tradition, my conception of CDT adopts particular philosophical approaches which derive from that tradition which are not necessarily encompassed within the idea of 'Disability Studies'.

As a theory of jurisprudence, CDT builds on the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement which merged critical theory with legal realism. Criticism of the CLS movement for its own failure to escape from the deep structural inequalities of society led to the development of identity jurisprudences focused on factors such as gender and race. In this paper, I describe CDT as the newest of these identity jurisprudences.

A critical jurisprudence of disability (1) identifies the sources of oppression within the law and legal institutions and, by means of that exposure, seeks to relieve disabled people from that oppression and (2) identifies the potential positive role of law and seeks to create law, use existing law and enlist legal institutions in the struggle for the emancipation of disabled people, which is the rationale for CDT itself.

CDT's central theme is that disability is a social construct, not the inevitable result of impairment. Disability is a complex inter-relationship between impairment, an individual's response to that impairment and the physical, institutional and attitudinal (together, the 'social') environment. The social disadvantage experienced by disabled people is the result of the failure of the social environment to respond adequately to the diversity presented by disability.

As an immanent critique of liberalism, CDT examines the ways in which disabled people are oppressed by the failure of liberalism to live up to its promises of equality and justice. In contrast to the liberal conception of language as a neutral mechanism of communication, CDT understands language to be inherently indeterminate and examines how language both reproduces and contests the social oppression of disabled people. Traditionally, the voices of disabled people have been marginalized: CDT centres their voices to produce narratives of disabled lives to contest the too common attitudes that depreciate the value of the disabled life.

Despite the limitations of liberal rights discourse, CDT embraces rights for their potential. Rights discourse itself is a powerful political tool for the advancement of the interests of disabled people and it is a bonus when the courts advance those interests through the application of legal rights.

Finally, CDT is a consciously political theory which provides the basis for practical action to advance the interests of disabled people.

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