The article introduces the Capability Approach as a relevant framework for evaluating the life of persons with physical disabilities. The first part of the article introduces the concept of the Capability Approach (CA), the basic concepts of functionings and capabilities. The second part of the article discusses the concept of disability and presents the reasons for using the CA as an evaluative framework regarding the problem of persons with disabilities.
Key words: capability approach, capabilities, disability
The Capability Approach has started its development since the 1980s and has been formulated and developed by the welfare economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, who presented the notion of capabilities in his “Equality of What?” Tanner Lectures on Human Values in 1979, and the political philosopher Martha Nussbaum. For more than 3 decades the army of capability scholars has expanded, and the CA has been successfully used as an evaluative framework regarding the questions of equality, justice and good life. The center of the CA is formed by the list of capabilities — the real opportunities that people use to live a valuable life. The key point lies in the realm of people’s actual ability to use these opportunities, rather than being promised equal opportunities for all by normative standards.
The Capability Approach is an interdisciplinary framework, and the capabilities that make the core of the CA are being used as a comparative tool in the UN’s Human Development Index (DHI), in the Human Development Reports presented by the Unites Nations Development Programme (UNDP); and in 2004 the CA researchers inspired the creation of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA).
In his “Equality of What?” Tanner Lecture on Human Values Amartya Sen debates on different concepts of equality and compares them to Rawlsian concept of equality based on an equal distribution and desire of natural and social primary goods, and later introduces his own concept of basic capability equality, summarizing that “as a partial guide it has virtues that the other characterizations of equality do not possess” . Sen proposes to replace the use of resources such as income and wealth as measurements of well-being with a list of capabilities. Among other reasons for introducing the concept of capabilities, Martha Nussbaum explains her criticism of Rawlsian idea of justice based on resources with “the inadequacy of wealth and income as indices of the well-being of people with disabilities: the person in a wheelchair may have the same income and wealth as a person of “normal” mobility and yet be unequal in capability to move from place to place” . It is important to mention that the capability theorists and the resource oriented theorists do not contradict each other regarding the importance of the input resources but rather have a different perspective on them. The Capability Approach cannot overlook the importance of the initial resources and other means available to a person speaking in terms of people’s capabilities. The analysis of resources, such as finances, food, primary education, state of health is also essential to the Capability Approach.
Functionings and capabilities are the important terms of the CA. While functionings are the valuable activities or states that people have reason to value (such as health, safety, skills, friendship, valuable job, education,etc.), capabilities are the combination of functionings that a person can actually achieve. Capabilities describe “the real actual possibilities open to a person” .
Capability theorists stress that even being granted the equal distribution of resources, people differ in their ability to use and transform them into equal opportunities. Capability theorists believe that people have personal differences and these differences are important and significant in evaluation of their well-being and the ability to achieve it. Thus, the Capability Approach presents sets of capabilities as valuable ends to human well-being. There is some argument, however, that capabilities cannot be seen as ultimate ends, but rather should be evaluated in terms of conditions a person is put into in which he can achieve these valuable ends . The Capability Approach focuses on achieving the ends in a general way. While seeking a job a handicapped person should have a possibility for proper job placement and the ability to perform the required duties. According to the Capability Approach, the ability to hold a satisfying job is the valuable end, but it is the privilege of a handicapped person to translate this capability into a more specific one, like working from home or from the place of employment, or even taking the particular job at all.
In many countries with average state of provision and care for the disabled people it would be safe to assume that persons with disabilities are given limited opportunities to live a valuable life of their own choice. The impairment to a great extend determines their choice of professional realization and social activity. Let us take a disabled elderly man in a wheelchair with little educational skills to get a valuable job, whose social pension is his only way of income, as an example. If given other opportunities, like having skills to use a computer and working from home, or having manual skills to produce certain goods for sale, or being able to move around freely in his wheelchair and get to a working place outside his place of residence, would he have the desire to work for a living or would he continue living on the pension? These questions make the core of the CA: asking if people have a satisfying way of life, and if given other (better) opportunities, would they choose to live the way of life they are currently living. The next important question is what should be done and changed to provide these opportunities.
Martha Nussbaum’s most recent list of capabilities appears in Frontiers of Justice: Disability,Nationality, Species Membership (2006). The list of capabilities remains open to change and modification and “no doubt it will undergo further modification in the light of criticism.” 
Nussbaum’s list of “Central Human Capabilities”
Source: Nussbaum (2006) [2, pp.76–78]
The term «disabled» is usually used as «not applicable». A disabled person is the person suffering from health problems, moderate or significant disorder of various functions or systems of the body, which are the result of a disease or the effects of trauma. As a result, we can talk about disabilities, which are the full or partial loss of the opportunity for a person to care for himself, to walk without assistance, to enter into dialogue with others, to clearly express his thoughts, to navigate in space, to control his actions, be responsible for his acts, or receive education and to work.
UNESCO promotes and supports the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which was adopted in 2006, which purpose is “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity” . According to the UN statistics of 2006, around 10 per cent of the world’s population (or 650 million people) live with a disability and persons with disabilities form the world’s largest minority, 20 per cent of the world’s poorest people are disabled and tend to be regarded as the most disadvantaged group in their own communities .
We may see that the general principles promoted by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities share the principles promoted by the CA. Some of the rights include the following :
– Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons;
– Full and effective participation and inclusion in society;
– Respect for difference and acceptance of disability as part of human diversity and humanity;
– Equality of opportunity;
– Accessibility, etc.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, among other things, recognizes the definition of “Discrimination on the basis of disability” which means “any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of disability which has the purpose or effect of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal basis with others, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. It includes all forms of discrimination, including denial of reasonable accommodation” .
Regardless of the massive coverage of the problems of persons with disabilities and attempts of practical development in the spheres of rehabilitation and social inclusion, today there is a large scale of disabilities and physical and mental conditions which lead to severe restrictions in many aspects of people’s personal and professional lives. From the abovementioned list of capabilities we can mention at least a half of capabilities which disabled people have difficulties with, such as: bodily integrity, freedom of movement, freedom from assault, affiliation, play, control over one's environment, political participation, etc. And even such capabilities as life, bodily health or emotions can be put in question, since the person whose living conditions and social integration were compromised by having certain disability, can have difficulties with providing food and shelter for himself, form caring attachments to other people or even relate positively to nature and other species. Our strongest belief is that the level of social and technological development of the society has the primary importance to this kind of correlation.
- Sen, Amartya (1980). Equality of What? in McMurrin (ed.), Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Nussbaum, Martha (2006). Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Alkire, Sabina (2005). Capability and Functionings: Definition & Justification. HDCA Introductory Briefing Note.
Robeyns, Ingrid (2011). The Capability Approach, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006). The United Nations.