2013-14: Disability and Ability

The Annual Ethics Theme for 2013-2014 is Disability and Ability, and a rich set of programs and curricula is taking shape across various Departments and Centers of Distinction.  The novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, will serve as the Common Reading to introduce and raise questions surrounding this theme for the Class of 2017 and the broader campus community.

The notion of disability often is taken to mean the absence of certain capacities and skills.  In obvious ways, people tend to see disability in terms of what someone cannot do, or be.  In truth, though, any incapacity or dearth of one skill is apt to contain within it gifts of other kinds.  Curious Incident is an unconventional murder mystery, with autistic teenager Christopher John Francis Boone as the detective.  While he is a gifted mathematician and student, the behavior of adults and his peers makes no sense to him because Christopher takes all things literally.  After someone kills his neighbor’s poodle, Christopher resolves to find the murderer.  Logic, which comes so naturally to Christopher, is his guide in this quest, but he is not able to appreciate the larger meaning of the secrets he unearths, especially in terms of the complex and sometimes painful familial and social relationships of which he is unknowingly an intricate part.  These complexities hit the reader with great force.  In solving the case, Christopher uncovers the reasons for his parents’ troubled marriage, and begins to come to grips with his place in the world.  During the 2013-2014 academic year, the arc of Haddon’s book will prompt instructors and students alike to think about disability and ability as more than a simple dichotomy, and to appreciate the palette of aptitudes that make up each human being.

These are among the many questions that this Annual Ethics Theme and Common Reading beckon us to ponder:

  • How is it that a profound ability so often sits, obscured, alongside a contrasting attribute?
  • What does science tell us about the causes of the wide variety of conditions that constitute Autism Spectrum Disorder?
  • If you could augment your body’s abilities in any way imaginable, would you?
  • Why did the United States Senate refuse to approve the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in December 2012?
  • In what ways are individuals with specific disabilities uniquely well-suited for particular tasks and vocations?
  • How are the lives of different-abled dance group members, and those of people who see such troupes perform, affected by this activity?
  • In what ways are entrepreneurs focusing on innovations that transform the daily lives of people with many different kinds of disabilities?
  • How are people with disabilities regarded and treated in various cultures and countries?
  • What is being done to prevent brain injuries among primary and secondary school athletes?
  • How do scientists look to natural systems and processes for inspiration to overcome human problems and challenges?
  • Why is difference a source of pity or fear, rather than curiosity or respect?
  • How do parents navigate the world when a child is deaf, autistic, has Down Syndrome?
  • What are society’s ethical obligations to citizens with various kinds of disabilities?
  • How effectively does America’s disability insurance system function?
  • What might it say about our culture that we avert our gaze from those who are different, and thus miss out on their astonishing qualities?
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