It is very common for individuals, especially if they do not have personal experience with a disability or significant interaction with disabled individuals, to think that having a disability gets in the way of our flourishing. That is, to think that having a disability makes one worse off or causes them to suffer simply in virtue of having that disability. I’ve referred to this before as ‘the Common View.’ The Common View is, I think, not only false but leads to all sorts of problematic treatment of people with disabilities. Disability rights advocates and disability studies scholars have pushed back against this view. Clifton too thinks the Common View is false: “disability and suffering do not always go together…. Indeed, it is a fundamental premise of this book that disabled people can and do flourish” (29).
Clifton distinguishes between suffering and pain. Pain can sometimes be very helpful. In fact, there’s a disability, congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA, also sometimes referred to as congenital analgesia) that inhibits the ability to feel pain and which can cause health problems. We ought not always want to avoid pain. What we want to avoid is suffering, especially needless suffering.
But all of us suffer, both physically and socially. (We don’t, of course, all suffer equally.) Clifton’s not interested here in giving a theodicy, a general account of why God allows suffering. But he doesn’t think that a theodicy specifically for disability is needed. Presumably there is a correct theodicy (or theodicies–I doubt there is a single reason which singly justifies the broad range of suffering). What we don’t need to do is think that there must be a theodicy specifically for disability. This is because not all disabilities involve suffering. And those that do can presumably be justified in the same way that other kinds of suffering are.
Clifton approaches these issues via the importance of the virtues, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity in particular. He doesn’t go into great detail about how virtues can help us understand disability in this chapter, but in approaching the topic in this way he’s setting the context for the discussion of the virtue tradition and human flourishing to come. As we’ll see, Clifton thinks that people can flourish despite (and in some cases because of) their disabilities. We all need faith, hope, and love to flourish. And these virtues can provide needed resources to those with disabilities who do suffer.
I think that a lot of the suffering that is involved with disability is caused by our reactions to disability, rather than the disabilities themselves. The many ways that we’ve mistreated those with disabilities, many of which I discuss in my Disability and Inclusive Communities, are examples of these social harms: forced sterilization, institutionalization, denial of job opportunities or education, etc…. Similarly, I’ve becoming increasingly convinced that we need to think more about the ways in which the virtues too are socially embedded and socially exemplified. My community can help me know how to hope, for instance. But I may also need my community to hope on my behalf when hope is too far off for me as an individual. If, as Clifton writes, “the real power of hope is that it transforms the present” (45), that transformation will be a social or corporate act. This is a theme that I’ll develop more in coming posts and which I’m thinking about in terms of a number of books I’m currently reading (including this one; see especially chapter 8.)
Let me also note that Clifton engages with Marilyn McCord Adams’ work on horrendous evils in passing during this chapter. My friend, Aaron Cobb, and I have a paper on disability and theodicy that draws heavily on Adams’ work. If you want to read it, it’s available open-access here. I won’t reproduce what we say there, though there’s a lot of affinity between our approach and Clifton’s in this chapter.