Theme Panel: Considering the Place of Disability in Political Science in the Wake of COVID-19

Considering the Place of Disability in Political Science in the Wake of COVID-19

Virtual Full Paper Panel

 (Chair) Monica C. Schneider, Miami University

Session Description:
Writing in 1985, Harlan Hahn observed that political scientists had “failed to devote significant attention to disability,” this despite its prevalence and significance to questions of domestic policy (Hahn 1985, 87). Remarking on the potential transformative impact of disability studies on the discipline, Hahn invited his colleagues to explore the intersection of these two fields in greater depth. And yet, over 37 years later, disability remains a largely neglected topic of disciplinary inquiry. Over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of disability both as an object of study and a lens through which to address questions of representation, equity and inclusion, public health access, and state obligation (among others) is evident. Indeed, the prevalence of long-term sequelae among COVID-19 survivors suggests significant social and economic implications, the scale of which we are only beginning to comprehend.

Taking up these issues, this panel “center[s] disability within politics” (to borrow a phrase from Jennifer Erkulwater). Together, the papers consider the role of political science scholarship on disability, making the case for its importance as we emerge from (and, indeed, continue to endure) the pandemic. Where Evans and Reher evaluate and build upon existing theories of political representation (which have mostly overlooked disability), Erkulwater looks to disability studies and identity politics to consider how “disability structures…contests over political identity and distributive categories in public policy.” Taking up the question of genetic engineering, Knight considers debates over the future and their significance for the political present. Finally, Heffernan turns to disability activism that arose in the wake of efforts to repeal Obamacare, tracing a shift in the kinds of rhetoric used by organizers in their efforts to secure disability rights.


The Puzzling Place of Disability in Political Science
Jennifer Leonor Erkulwater, University of Richmond

Disability studies emerged in the 1980s as part of a cluster of politicized identity-based interdisciplinary fields of study in race, ethnicity, and gender that theorized and sought to actualize greater inclusion in academia. Political science, however, has been slow to incorporate critical studies of identity. As recently as 2004, Rogers Smith, past APSA president, pondered “the puzzling place of race in political science.” And while the discipline has experienced a flourishing of new scholarship on race and ethnic politics, aside for some work in the subfields on political theory and political behavior, the same energy cannot be found in the discipline’s critical or empirical approaches to disability. At a moment when the COVID-19 pandemic has raised public awareness of issues related to disability, in sectors as varied as health care access, remote workplaces, and the vulnerabilities of the immunocompromised, political science, as a discipline, has had little to say. This paper seeks to fill this lacuna in political science. By placing in conversation the substantial but disconnected work that exists in the fields of disability studies and identity politics, I develop a framework for considering how disability structures politics, in particular contests over political identity and distributive categories in public policy. The paper begins with an overview of the place of disability in the political science literature with an eye toward highlighting key areas in which critical study of disability has been neglected. Using two examples from public policy, I illustrate the ways in which insights from disability studies can appropriately center disability within politics and deepen our understanding of politics.

Genetic Engineering, Disability, and the “Right to an Open Future”
Amber Knight, University of North Carolina – Charlotte

Philosophers have been speculating about the future genetic engineering will bring about for decades. Disability studies scholars have taken a turn toward notions of futurity as well. This article enters current debates over the future and the place of disability within it. Specifically, I rethink a core concept in political theory— the child’s “right to an open future”— to showcase why debates over the future matter for the political present. Ultimately, I argue that the right to an open future is best understood as the right to an accessible future, one that is “open” to people with diverse genetic traits and capacities.

Bodies in Resistance: Disability and the Rhetoric of Rights
Ann Kathleen Heffernan, University of Michigan

On June 22, 2017, 82 disabled activists with the group ADAPT staged a die-in outside then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office to protest the most recent draft of the Senate’s bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Proposing dramatic cuts to Medicaid, the bill would also repeal the individual and employer mandates, reduce access to birth control, and limit protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions. Chanting “No cuts to Medicaid—save our liberty!” protesters were pictured being dragged from their wheelchairs and bodily carried from the building by Capitol Police. In all, 43 arrests were made, with many news outlets and commentators expressing alarm at the violence of the arrests. This paper returns to this moment to consider the tactics employed by the protestors, specifically the participants’ strategic enactment of bodily vulnerability and disability. Employing what Kevin DeLuca refers to as a “body rhetoric,” by which bodies—in this case disabled bodies—become “the site and substance” of political argument, I show how ADAPT protesters knowingly played on public perceptions of disabled people as the proper objects of compassion and care. Where prior analysis of disability rights has tended to view the extension of rights as an evolution away from charity, this paper reveals its persistence in arguments for disability rights and considers its implications for disability activism in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disability and Political Representation: Some Conceptual Questions
Stefanie Reher, University of Strathclyde; Elizabeth J. Evans, Goldsmiths, University of London

Political representation is an important multi-faceted concept through which the equality of traditionally marginalised social groups has been examined; to date this has principally been explored in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and class, with relatively little attention paid to disability. This paper seeks to build on existing work related to disability and political equality by reconsidering existing theories, and by raising a set of questions or problematics which reveal themselves when the concept of representation is read through the lens of disability. We are particularly interested in how disability can help inform how we understand political representation, what we expect our representatives to do, and who we expect our representatives to be. Drawing upon feminist and critical race theoretical work on representation, we are especially keen to explore three areas: 1) the role that rationalism plays in defining representation; 2) the distinction between who the representative is from what the representative does; and 3) the role that presence plays in our understanding of what representation looks like. Although we realise that these three areas do not tell the whole story of disability and representation, they do raise a set of particular and instructive questions regarding physical, cognitive, and psychological impairments. The paper starts from the premise that increasing the number of disabled politicians matters, and that the lived experiences of disabled people can benefit the representation of disabled people. Of course, we are keen to avoid essentialist analysis, i.e., that disabled politicians will always be better representatives for disabled people because they are disabled, but at the same time we stress the importance of lived experience amongst elected representatives as a means of explaining, understanding, and representing, particularly as it relates to disability.