Using Sen’s Capabilities Approach to Tackle Disability Discrimination

Despite agreeing that for some reason, certain countries struggle to “catch up” to a Western standard of development, the word development itself means something different to all who hear it. There are competing theories of development ranging from Utilitarianism, Libertarianism, to the Rawlsian Theory of Justice and how to approach it like the direct approach, supplementary approach, and indirect approach.

To some, development is about economic growth. To others like Amartya Sen, development is defined more as consisting “of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency” or “the process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” (Development as Freedom). This is the capabilities approach, meaning that instead of focusing on individual income as the goal, development work must expand to include social and economic arrangements (ie the facilities for education and healthcare) and political and civil rights (ie the liberty to participate in public discussion and scrutiny). This follows the Rawlsian Theory of Justice model where John Rawls argues that justice and freedom are not mutually exclusive, instead of building institutions based on the idea of the social contract instead of the Utilitarian approach of the greatest good for the greatest number, excluding the rest. He expands freedoms to include 1) political 2) economic and 3) social opportunities as well as 4) transparency and 5) protective security, which all work together to develop and support the plurality of institutions.

Similarly to Sen, Sumner and Tribe, in International Development Studies, view development as three, inter-related views on development. These are 1) Long-term process of structural change in the international system, 2) Short to medium-term poverty reduction and MDGs , and 3) Development as discourse (a set of ideas; that shapes/frame reality).

Because the state must be in a supporting role to give people the agency to build these institutions, it is interesting to look at Sen’s approach in regards to inclusive development for persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities often do not have these freedoms and do not have the ability to achieve the lives they have reason to value under the capabilities approach. By using Sen’s and Sumner and Tribe’s views on development, disability rights activists have a guiding framework with which to engage in conversation on a higher level.

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