Disabled People in the Public Eye

 Posted by on 17 May 2013 at 10:00 am  Ayn Rand, Disability, Ethics
May 172013

On Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll answer a question on whether disabled kids be kept out of the public eye. The question was inspired by this story of a waiter who refused to serve a table of customers due to their unpleasant remarks about a five-year-old child with Down’s Syndrome at another table. The child was not being loud or disruptive, and he was known and liked by the waiter. The people at the other table reportedly said that “special needs kids should be kept in special places.”

Apparently, that view has some currency among Objectivists, starting with Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand Answers includes the following Q&A:

OY. I’m not a fan of mainstreaming disabled children in schools, except on a case-by-case basis, when everyone benefits thereby. However, the idea that disabled children ought to be kept away from normal children just flabbergasts me.

It’s simply a fact that some people in this world of ours suffer from mental and/or physical disabilities. Even otherwise normal people suffer from disabilities on occasion — not just injuries and illness, but the effects of aging too.

Disabled people are morally entitled to live their lives, pursuing their values to the best of their ability — just like everyone else. That means they’ll be out in the world, where children might see and/or interact with them. Hence, parents should speak to their children about disabilities, including how to interact with disabled people in a morally decent way. That’s an important part of a child’s moral education — if you don’t want little Johnny to push Grandma down the stairs because she was walking too slowly for his tastes, that is.

The moral education required here isn’t rocket science. Disabled people should be treated with civility and respect — just like everyone else. They might merit the effort of a bit of kindness, such as holding open a door or speaking slowly — just like everyone else. Of course, disabled people can be rude or disruptive or offensive or bothersome too. That’s pretty standard behavior for normal people too, albeit with less excuse. The sensible response is not to demand that disabled people be hidden from sight, but rather to put some distance between yourself and the bothersome person. See? Not rocket science!

Well… I’d better stop there, before I dive into a full-blown rant. I have plenty more to say on this topic on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio… so I hope that you join us!

Update of 19 May 2013:

The podcast of Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, including the question on the visibility of disabled children is now available.

Download or Listen to My Full Answer:

Tags: Ayn Rand, Benevolence, Children, Disability, Egoism, Ethics, Individualism, Parenting, Respect, Rights


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000536747848 Jennifer Snow

    I think that if someone is disabled in such a way that they cannot recognize or respond to basic requests such as “quit trying to grope me”, they should be kept away from children. When I was in 4th and 5th grade, the class Down’s Syndrome kid became utterly FIXATED with me and would chase me everywhere and try to grab me. No amount of “quit it!” or “stop!” or “leave me alone!” had any effect, and the teachers wouldn’t do anything about it either. Someone should have *physically restrained* this kid and taken him off. Instead, I was forced to hide when I should have been concentrating on school.

    If I’d had the mental maturity then that I do now, I would have thrown a completely-justified outraged fit at the way I was being treated, and so should any kid who is forced by adults to endure the constant assault of someone who not just won’t but CAN’T control themselves.

    Does this apply to all disabled people? No, of course not. But when it does, yeah, they SHOULD be kept away from children.

    • https://philosophyinaction.com/ Diana Hsieh

      Jennifer — Your story is horrible, and I’m so sorry that happened to you. But the basic problem was not that the kid was disabled, but rather that the adults in your life failed to protect you from really awful harassment. Most of the time, perfectly ordinary kids are inflicting such harassment on other kids, and many adults will just look the other way at that. (That was my experience in middle school, when I was harassed by a pack of mean girls over the course of months.)

      The relevant moral principles here are the same, whether the harassing kid is disabled or not. You don’t let one kid harass or bully others. You don’t force kids to play together. You don’t allow kids to batter or molest each other. You don’t allow kids to be unduly disruptive to others. Etc.

      We don’t need a new set of ethical rules for disabled kids: the ethical principles are the same as with regular kids. Also, we certainly ought to judge disabled kids as individuals, not assume that they’ll behave badly and segregate them just because they’re disabled.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Pryce/100001075335339 John Pryce

        Diana, with regards to the last paragraph of your reply to Jennifer, have you ever heard of the concept of the “cost of confirmation”?

        Thomas Sowell described it as the reason why labeling and profiling are useful and commonplace means of dealing with people. Its true that they are all individuals and all different, but it ISN’T true that the cost of understanding each one of them is 0. This is the illustration I usually use when I’m explaining this concept to people: “If I come home to find a tiger – an actual tiger – lying on my bed, it might turn out that the tiger is completely tame and I can treat it as I would a large house cat; but its also true that the risk I take trying to verify the tiger’s assumed ferocious nature is quite large.”

        I would say that if all schooling were privatized, then I would imagine that some schools would have such mentally impaired children being educated right alongside normal children. The difference being, of course, that at least some of the faculty at those schools would have the necessary training to know when the impaired childrens’ behavior is a problem, and when it is mere playing. I imagine that, provided proper training on the part of the faculty, and assuming that the actual classrom was not disrupted or unacceptably slowed down by their presence, that none of the parents would object.

        But in the current world of public schools, the prospect of properly trained faculty is a pipe dream – less, actually. And under these circumstances such impaired children most certainly should NOT be educated alongside normal children. Public schools can’t effectively handle bullying and ordinary harassment between normal children; the politically charged issue of the disabled children means the faculty likely won’t do a thing, even in the face of severe harassment issues like Jennifer’s or worse, because of the personal legal and financial danger to themselves (I presume you know what sort of people I refer to when I mention these dangers).

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000536747848 Jennifer Snow

        Of course, I’m not a huge fan of the practice of stuffing a bunch of kids into an enormous cattle pen where they have less privacy than prison inmates and calling it a “school” either.

        I think it should be decided on a case-by-case basis by the various adults involved–maybe even on a day-to-day basis. I’ve also attended classes with autistic teenagers and it seemed to work well for everyone involved, but the autistic kids didn’t come every day–when they were having a rough day, they had a place they could go to regain their cool. I don’t think it’s possible to create a general policy for conditions that are complex and individual aside from what you’ve stated.

  • http://twitter.com/Radian_Angle Tjitze de Boer

    Wasn’t the scope of “disabled” a lot more narrow back then?

    • https://philosophyinaction.com/ Diana Hsieh

      Ayn Rand spoke of “the retarded,” and I think that the term meant the same to her as what I grew up with.

  • mamark martinson

    Isn’t the editing of ayn rand answers borderline dishonest ?

  • William H. Stoddard

    A friend of mine who gets sent to Amsterdam occasionally on business, and who is unable to walk at normal speed, has told me that an Amsterdam people will just push past her to get through a door she’s clearly approaching. Apparently the belief there is that if you are not fully fit you should be kept out of sight and not inconvenience people who are. It gave me a greater appreciation for American culture: The ADA has many problems (starting with attempting to do through legislation what needs to be done through culture), but it grows out of an attitude I find more attractive.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=523711706 Joe McHugh

      A disabled man from Switzerland told me essentially the same thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=701876494 Brandon S Killen

    Was Rand’s view a common cultural viewpoint? I’m not exactly sure on the history here (for example, when children with mental disabilities began to be mainstreamed into public schools), but given society’s shift of vocabulary from retarded to mental disability to special needs, I think there has been a definite softening in reactions to this sort of thing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Pryce/100001075335339 John Pryce

    I was never disabled, nor was anyone in my classes, but one thing I do remember was the inclusion of ESOL students in the normal classroom, prior to their having fully learned English as well as the rest of us (and our teachers did not speak Spanish). They were a HUGE disruption, all the time. Eventually they learned enough English that the problem went away, but it was a big problem for at least the first school year.

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