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Is disability mere difference?
  1. Greg Bognar1,2
  1. 1Department of Philosophy, Stockholm University; Stockholm Centre for Healthcare Ethics (CHE), Stockholm, Sweden
  2. 2Department of Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Greg Bognar, Department of Philosophy, Stockholm University, Universitetsvägen 10 D, Stockholm 10691, Sweden; greg.bognar{at}

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Some philosophers and disability advocates argue that disability is not bad for you. Rather than treated as a harm, it should be considered and even celebrated as just another manifestation of human diversity. Disability is mere difference. To most of us, these are extraordinary claims. Can they be defended?

Disability and quality of life

What do people mean when they claim that disability is mere difference? This is not always clear. Surely, they cannot mean that all disabilities are mere differences. There are some disabilities that are so bad that life with them is plainly not worth living. Jonathan Glover reports the case of an infant born with a severe case of dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, a genetic condition due to which any contact with the skin causes severe blisters and scarring. The condition can extend to the patient's digestive and respiratory tracts, resulting in constant, unbearable pain. Having to live with such a condition is worse than non-existence. Since death can be a benefit for someone in this condition, having this disability must be a harm.1

Or suppose there was a disability that causes no pain but cuts life short. Other than causing premature death, this imagined condition does not have any negative impact on quality of life. (Real progeroid syndromes also cause morbidity.) Surely, a person who has this imaginary disability and who wants to go on living would be harmed when she dies early because of it. And if dying prematurely when you want to live on does not harm you, then it is hard to see what does. Therefore, the claim that disability is mere difference cannot apply across the board. It must apply only to some disabilities.

One problem is that those who make the claim that disability is mere difference almost never add any qualifications. They do not seem …

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  • Funding Financial support from the Swedish Research Council and from the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare is gratefully acknowledged (2014–4024).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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