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Caring for the Vulnerable by Caring for the Caregiver: The Case of Mental Retardation

by SKeira Mar 06, 2015
When Mar 14, 2002 6:00 PM to
Mar 16, 2002 7:00 PM
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Professor of Philosophy, SUNY, Stony Brook

Keynote Speaker,
Ethics: The Inaugural Symposium of the Rock Ethics Institute 
Conference, March 14-16, 2002 
Nittany Lion Inn

Caring for the Vulnerable by Caring for the Caregiver: The Case of Mental Retardation

Eva Feder Kittay, Professor of Philosophy at SUNY, Stonybrook, sees an important connection between feminist philosophy and the philosophy of disability: both focus on people whose identities are especially shaped by their bodies and by the fact that their bodies are or are considered to be unequal in strength or skill when compared to that of an able-bodied, independent male (1998, pp. 32-6). Furthermore, inequality in the experience of women and the disabled is not limited to their bodies, but often extends to their roles as society and family members, as workers, as thinkers, and so on. Kittay is critical of typical proposals to redress these inequalities by overcoming the bodily differences so as to magnify the independence of women and the disabled. By endorsing values of independence, self-sufficiency and productivity, such an approach, she argues, has implicitly accepted the supremacy of the male body.

Though Kittay does not deny independence or similar traits to women or to disabled persons, she argues that dependency is a fundamental and positive aspect of the lives of such people, and not something to be eliminated or overcome. Relationships of dependency are especially evident in women—who bear, nurse and care for children—and the disabled—who rely on the care of others for their well-being or even survival; but, dependency is in fact essential to lives of all of us. Whether male or female, able-bodied or disabled, we were all children and we will all grow old or become ill; even when our preservation is not at issue, we depend on others as friends or helpers. Dependency is thus an essential dimension of human experience, and a notion of equality that bases itself on a standard of independent self-sufficiency will necessarily misrepresent the value of the experiences, relationships and needs that surround dependency. Kittay sees the fallout of this inattentiveness in the low wages provided for caretaking positions, in the common notion that “stay-at-home” mothers are jobless, and in the push by the federal government for parents to “get off” welfare and secure “real jobs,” a transition that for many parents would require that they put their children or disabled dependents into daycare rather than continuing to care for them on their own.

To facilitate rectifying these injustices, Kittay develops a theory of personhood that recognizes the essential place of dependency. Kittay gathers many of her insights into dependency from her own experience as a mother of a profoundly disabled child. In her daughter, she recognizes a person who has distinct ways of interacting with different people, who both gives and receives love and joy in her relationships with others, and who shapes the way the people around her experience the world. Although Kittay acknowledges that her daughter cannot survive without the constant care of others, and is, therefore, incapable of an “independent” life, she does not see her daughter’s inabilities as excluding her from personhood, for there is no shortage in her daughter’s ability to engage with and impact the people around her. Kittay writes:

We do not become a person without the engagement of other persons—their care, as well as their recognition of the uniqueness and connectedness of our human agency, and the distinctiveness of our particularly human relations to others and of the world we fashion (2001, p.568).

It is our ability to be in relationships with others rather than our ability to be self-sufficient that should anchor our understanding of what it means to be a person.

Kittay argues that this understanding of personhood in terms of relationships of mutual dependence brings with it a new understanding of justice:

Justice that is caring begins with an acknowledgment of our dependency and seeks to organize society so that our well-being is not inversely related to our need for care or to care; such justice makes caring itself a mode of action (2001, p.576).

Such an understanding entails that we as a culture need to give greater weight to the responsibility of caring for others. This recognition should be accompanied by a wage that reflects the importance of such work as well as the demands it places on those who take up the responsibility. To fail to properly compensate or appreciate those who take on dependency work is a source of injustice not only for the undervalued laborer, but also for the dependents, which are at greater risk for being mistreated at the hands of frustrated caretakers. “Dependency Work,” as Kittay calls it, should in no way be thought of or treated as menial, but rather should be recognized as honorable and as requiring great skill and care (1999, p.38).


Kittay, Eva Feder. “When Caring is Just and Justice is Caring: Justice and Mental Retardation.” Public Culture13, No. 3 (2001), 557-79.

Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency. New York: Routledge, 1999.

“Dependency, Equality, and Welfare” [Parts 1 and 2]. Feminist Studies 24, No. 1 (1998), 32-43.

Recommended Reading

For a copy of the following article, please contact the Rock Ethics Institute:rockethics@psu.edu

Kittay, Eva Feder. “When Caring is Just and Justice is Caring: Justice and Mental Retardation.” Public Culture13, No. 3 (2001), 557-79.


Kirsten Jacobson prepared this summary.