Undoing the binary of cognitive ability and cognitive disability

[This post is the eighth in our new series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September. The first post in the series is here and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays … or at least that’s the plan.]

I’ve chosen a section of Anna Stubblefield’s talk “The Entanglement of Race and Cognitive Disability” for discussion in which she explains that our contemporary notion of intellect is a social construction, one which is founded on assumptions about race. In this section (running approximately from the 2 minute mark to the 5 minute mark), Stubblefield explains how it is that intellect is socially constructed and mentions two things in particular I want to consider: first, she notes that our notion of intellect is constructed around our assumptions as to what counts as successful communication and second, that due to the biases inherent to the structure of our measurements of intellect, an individual may be identified as cognitively disabled simply because their cognitive abilities are such that the method of measurement is not sensitive to them. As a result of their diagnosis as cognitively disabled, this individual is then often denied access to opportunities for future development.

I agree with Dr. Stubblefield’s arguments in this section, particularly as an individual who has a parent with a cognitive disability. I have seen the way my parent has had to work to overcome the limitations placed on them by their identification as disabled rather than their actual capabilities. What I want to discuss here is not the truth of her arguments, but rather their implications. Specifically, I wonder about the what a more inclusive concept of intellect would be like? My concern is that many emancipatory projects which seek to undo the false binary of socially constructed identifications (like race, gender and sexuality) run the risk of forming ever more complex systems of identifications- ones that carry with them their own system of inclusions and exclusions. Indeed, many projects that seek to recognize the multiplicity of ways of being that exist between the extremes of a binary often do so by attempting to explicitly articulate the differences -articulations that themselves are always overdetermining the lives and practices of those it seeks to render visible. If intellect is similar to race, gender and sexuality in its social construction (and arguably, cannot be abstracted from any of these terms, not simply race) then is it prey to the same pitfalls of identity politics that projects organized around those terms have suffered? Is it possible to undo this binary of cognitive ability/disability without labeling ourselves to death?

Transcript of clip

To say that intellect is socially constructed is not to say that there are no differences in cognitive development. But, just as we have come to understand that we do not derive attributions of race solely from skin colour, so we do not derive attributions of intellect straightforwardly from cognitive skills. Indeed, cognitive skills are as elusive as skin colour and evade measurement just as much. The notion of a measurable intelligence quotient or the idea that any test of specific skills can measure intellect in some general sense is itself part of how our contemporary understanding of intellect has been constructed. There are many people that find it hard to reason, to employ logic, to problem solve, to grasp abstract ideas, to perform a variety of academic skills and so on, but we must be extremely cautious about judgments we make about others’ abilities. We can see if someone is able to demonstrate specific skills, in the way we demand, in a specific test, but we cannot legitimately jump from that to judgments about their overall intelligence. Furthermore, we have to be aware of the ways in which we are making assumptions about motor skills. For example, we may assume that moving blocks is a basic motor skill, so we test for an understanding of quantity by asking someone to pick out three blocks from a pile. But if the motor skills involved are too difficult for that person, and he does not do as we request, then we assume he does not know how to count. We have to eliminate many other possibilities before we can accurately conclude that a person does not know how to count. And then we cannot assume that it is impossible for him to learn to count until we have tried many different approaches, not just the typical approach to helping him learn. We also have to recognize ways in which the skills we look for are culturally and socially specific and understand that not having certain skills is only a problem in certain contexts. Many students waste hours of time learning to tie shoes, a difficult motor operation that is often used as a measure of intellectual accomplishment in an age of Velcro fasteners. And we have to avoid jumping to the conclusions about someone never being able to learn a certain skill. If it is a skill that is useful for him to learn, we should keep trying to help him learn it. But we should not delay introducing other skills on the basis that he’ll never be able to do this, if he hasn’t learned to do that. You do not need to learn how to read in order to work on developing problem solving skills, for example. We also have to be careful about assumptions about what skills are useful for a particular person. For example, if we have already decided that a person has limited cognitive ability, we may assume that he does not need to learn to read…..Furthermore, the construction of intellect is bound up with the construction of what counts as communication. People who consider themselves to possess intelligence attribute intellect to others based on how they communicate. When a person cannot understand another easily or follow his thought processes, or the latter does not give the former the answers she expects to certain kinds of questions, she concludes from that that he has cognitive deficits. Yet if she recognized the ways in which she is failing to communicate with him, by not adapting herself to his mode of communication, he language use and his pace, or by failing to appreciate his behaviours, gestures and glances as communication, she might find that he is not so unable to communicate after all. She might realize that what she took as his lack of communicative skill and hence evidence for his cognitive skill is really her lack of communicative skill. Once we understand that the notion of intellect is constructed through assumptions about what counts as communication and what skills people must demonstrate before they are granted access to opportunities for development, we can understand that what disables people who are labeled as intellectually impaired is first, an environment in which a successful or full life is defined in limited terms based on notions of independence from others and competitive accomplishment and second, an environment in which people who are not independent or successful in these narrowly define ways are therefore deprived of the opportunity to challenge themselves developmentally, to participate as citizens, to use their skills and talents to make contributions to society in ways that are beneficial and meaningful to them and enjoy full protection of their rights.

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2 thoughts on “Undoing the binary of cognitive ability and cognitive disability

  1. I’m wondering whether binary thinking plays the role that you seem to think that it does in regulating, disciplining, and norming cognitive disability, and so also about whether moving beyond such thinking is an important part of fashioning a more helpful notion of intellect.

    Take IQ as a common measure of intellect. One thing that has come up in a number of these posts is that the idea that there’s a level of IQ (e.g., 25) below which human beings are non-persons and above which they make the cut and get moral personhood on their side is a kind of crass absurdity. This leads to a person / non-person binary alright, and while no one defends this idea, we have seen that it is a constitutive part of the definition of “profound mental retardation” in the psychological literature that Peter Singer explicitly appeals to in his talk. So we have a person – non-person binary, and we have a profoundly mentally retarded – others binary. But the vast majority of people with one or more cognitive disabilities (or, for those persuaded that this phrase itself is problematic, rephrase this how you like) are in on the person and the “other” side of these binaries, and fall under many different kinds of labels. I don’t see how binary thinking gets the same grip on cognitive ability / disability here, as other binaries might. What am I missing?

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