Feminist Philosophers

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Epistemic Injustice and Disability December 6, 2009

Filed under: disability,epistemology,language — Jender @ 9:56 am

This devastating article by Rahila Gupta describes her struggles to get medical and educational authorities to believe what she and her son Nihal were saying: that he was perfectly capable of a mainstream education, despite his disabilities. Anyone interested in epistemic injustice should read it, as it’s quite a catalog of such injustices: Nobody believed Rahila because mothers weren’t considered credible; nobody believed Nihal because they were so certain he couldn’t possibly be communicating; educational authorities didn’t want to give him the opportunity to learn because they thought he couldn’t; they didn’t want to facilitate him showing what he’d learned through communicative help or through extra time on exams; and on and on and on. And yet he became a prize-winning teenage poet.

One particularly searing example:

Yet at seven months old, I discovered that Nihal understood the names of the various parts of his face. I would sit him on my lap and hold his fisted hand close to his face and ask him to touch his eyes, nose and so on. He would bring the right part of his face down to his hand. By some miracle it appeared that his cognitive abilities had remained intact… In my delight, I showed him off like a performing monkey to an occupational therapist at a centre that had been our saviour – the first place where there was no suggestion that you might as well walk away from this child… This therapist would ask us to demonstrate his party trick for her students. What I didn’t realise until later, to our utter humiliation, was that she would introduce us before we entered the room as an example of how faith transcended rationality in parents. And once this construct had been placed upon it, those students would not believe the evidence of their own eyes – that Nihal was obviously touching parts of his face on cue.

(For the technically inclined: This seems to me also a good example of silencing (see e.g. Langton). What the therapist said to her students made it impossible for Rahila’s speech acts to have their intended effect of showing Nihal was able to understand language. If we see Nihal’s pointings as utterances, then the therapist arguably silenced these illocutionarily as well, by making it impossible for them to be understood as speech acts at all.)

 

 
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