Deliberation and disability rights – is consensus a fact of democratic life?

Communities tap into diversity to enrich their deliberative potential and provide fair representation, suggests study.    

The National Council on Disability (NCD) represents a diverse network of individuals and groups that favours unity in its depiction of the community, reveals Jessica M. F. Hughes. Yet, engaging with social difference as a resource rather than a liability can strengthen the Council’s legitimacy and inclusion, argues Hughes in Constructing a United Disability Community: The National Council on Disability’s Discourse of Unity in the Deliberative System around Disability Rights. She highlights the Council’s positioning of unity and diversity as opposite ideals in key texts and suggests a balanced commitment to both ideals.

Hughes examines the Council’s rendering of history in the publication Equality of Opportunity: The Making of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Council focuses on unity as a fundamental component of the disability community’s ongoing struggle for rights. Valuing consensus over difference presents the movement as a united front. But it can be seen at odds with its goals of inclusion and representation. Unity, or consensus, can drive social movements – the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act speaks to the power of consensus, the author notes. But, downplaying differences to present a united front can exclude marginalized voices from the conversation – and inclusion is vital to legitimacy. The author proposes a productive relationship between consensus and difference.

Pointing out that consensus in a vastly diverse community tends to exclude some members, Hughes recommends a reorientation. By acknowledging that consensus is not always achieved, and portraying it as a fact of democratic life instead of a threat, the Council could shift from a consensus-focused view to account for diversity and improve inclusion. This reorientation could support stronger coalitions, greater representation for disenfranchised members, and nurture the deliberative system around the disability rights movement, the author suggests.  

Disability rights advocate Jessica M. F. Hughes is Assistant Professor at Reading Area Community College.

Photo: USAID/Flickr

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