Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation


Main content start

Along with racial and religious minorities, homosexuals, and women, the disabled have long been denied equal opportunity.

Disability may be thought to pose special problems for Equality of Opportunity theorists since many of them endorse meritocratic allocation of jobs and many disabled persons face greater obstacles to becoming the most meritorious than the non-disabled since some are naturally disadvantaged in terms of abilities that may be related to performance in jobs. Treating the disabled the same as the non-disabled does not always suffice to treat them equally, for disabilities sometimes give rise to special needs and requirements. However, differential treatment can give rise to stigma and division, which is anathema to equality. These considerations are relevant to such practical decisions as the placement of disabled children in mainstream schools and their education therein.

There is much debate about the ability of Equality of Opportunity in general, as well as particular conceptions of Equality of Opportunity, to accommodate disability. Some critics, for instance, claim that many theories of justice focus unduly on reciprocity and co-operation, which the disabled may be excluded from, as a pre-condition of being deserving of equal opportunity and other demands of justice. Others claim that rather than focusing on Equality of Opportunity for Welfare, or Fair Equality of Opportunity, we should focus on ensuring that each person has a certain set of capabilities. Further debates focus on the extent to which (at least some of) the disadvantages of disability may be detached from the disability itself and the extent to which they are attached only in virtue of social organization or social attitudes, which we could and should alter. For instance, if the dominant modes of communication in our society were sign-based rather than spoken, perhaps muteness and deafness would not be considered disabilities. Likewise, where braille translations are readily available the blind do not face a disability with respect to reading.


Ben‐Porath, Sigal. “Defending Rights In (Special) Education”. Educational Theory, Educational Theory, 62, no. 1 (2012): 25-39.

Notes: The paper considers three approaches, capabilities, human capital and rights, to expressing the state’s commitment to the education of all through schooling, regardless of ability.

Brighouse, Harry. “Can Justice As Fairness Accommodate The Disabled?”. Social Theory And Practice, Social theory and practice, 27, no. 4 (2001): 537-560.

Notes: The paper examines the ways that liberal egalitarians, particularly Rawlsians, might extent their theory, or use existing resources, to address questions raised by disability.

Kittay, Eva Feder. “At The Margins Of Moral Personhood”. Ethics, Ethics, 116, no. 1 (2005): 100-131.

Notes: This paper examines the connection between the basis of justice claims as being cognitive ability or capacity and the claims of justice of the disabled. Kittay argues that such capacities are not the basis of justice claims and that the exclusion of the disabled on these grounds is as repugnant and exclusion based on race or gender.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Frontiers Of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. The Tanner Lectures On Human Values. The Tanner Lectures On Human Values. Belknap, 2007.

Notes: The book develops an alternative to social contract theories of justice. The alternative appeals to capabilities as the metric of justice and can respond to important limitations of the social contract tradition, including dealing with non-human animals, recognizing the claims of the disabled and recognizing those outside of our state as a matter of global justice.

Nussbaum, Martha C, and Amartya Sen. The Quality Of Life. Wider Studies In Development Economics. Wider Studies In Development Economics. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Notes: This collection of essays on what contributes to the quality of life. Different essays comes from different philosophical perspectives and responses to each essay are given by philosophers who hold opposing views.

Robeyns, Ingrid. “Three Models Of Education Rights, Capabilities And Human Capital”. Theory And Research In Education, Theory and Research in Education, 4, no. 1 (2006): 69-84.

Notes: This paper assesses three approaches to educational reform with particular attention to gender. Robeyns argues that the intrinsic value of education lies in its ability to promote capabilities.

Stark, Cynthia A. “Luck, Opportunity And Disability”. Critical Review Of International Social And Political Philosophy, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16, no. 3 (2013): 383-402.

Notes: This paper argues that the conception of equality of opportunity for welfare is in tension with the conception of  fair equality of opportunity and that this is likely to mean the view cannot adequately respond to the claims of the disabled.

Terzi, Lorella. “Beyond The Dilemma Of Difference: The Capability Approach To Disability And Special Educational Needs”. Journal Of Philosophy Of Education, Journal of philosophy of education, 39, no. 3 (2005): 443-459.

Notes: This paper argues that common ways of treating the disabled in a theory of justice face a dilemma, in which we must choose between treating people the same, without acknowledging special needs, or that we must treat people differently, sacrificing equality. Terzi proposes that the capabilities approach can help us to avoid this dilemma.

Terzi, Lorella. Justice And Equality In Education: A Capability Perspective On Disability And Special Educational Needs. Continuum, 2010.

Notes: The book presents a theory of justice in education that is especially attentive to special educational needs and the plight of the disabled. The book develops a capability-based theory of justice and considers the issues of equality and rejects alternative models.