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Title page for ETD etd-12022011-135421

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Clifford, Stacy Anne
Author's Email Address stacy.a.clifford@vanderbilt.edu
URN etd-12022011-135421
Title Indispensable Idiocy: Cognitive Disability and the Social Contract
Degree PhD
Department Political Science
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Brooke Ackerly Committee Chair
Emily Nacol Committee Member
Susan Saegert Committee Member
W. James Booth Committee Member
  • citizenship
  • personhood
  • self-advocacy
  • feminism
  • Locke
  • Rawls
Date of Defense 2011-05-03
Availability unrestricted
In my dissertation, I argue that democratic theory harbors a paradox of personhood in which theorists hinge human equality to the concept of personhood, but then invest personhood with a cluster of cognitive requirements that enact exclusion. Consequently, liberalism’s commitment to personhood generates a subperson class of humans whose lives accomplish important and yet troubling theoretical work: they depoliticize complex ethical dilemmas and they exaggerate the cognitive capacities of democratic citizens. People with cognitive disabilities embody this paradox: if their disability is severe, they lack the requisite level of cognitive capacity to garner personhood status, and yet, they are people.

Chapters one and two explore how John Locke and John Rawls—two pivotal liberal theorists—both rely on cognitive disability to define and delimit personhood. Because the exclusion of people with cognitive disabilities is central to social contract theory, I conceptualize the contract moment as a disabled contract, signaling both the absence of disabled people and the contract’s failed promise of universal equality. Chapter three analyzes the historical construction of cognitive disability during modernity; I find that disability is repeatedly deployed to legitimize political exclusions based on sex, race and class in the pursuit of engineering an ideal democratic populace. Rather than create alliance between groups, however, women and nonwhites demand political membership on the erroneous accusation of cognitive disability. The last chapter uses observations gathered from disability rights organizations to explore how self-advocates with cognitive disabilities claim rights within a political discourse that denies them human status. Although the rhetoric of the self-advocacy movement reinforces exclusionary norms of citizenship, I argue that the location of advocacy meetings in public spaces challenges prejudicial beliefs that disabled lives are miserable and best kept hidden. Throughout my dissertation, I argue that the paradox of personhood is troubling, and yet, seductive.

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