The Metaphor of Civic Threat: Intellectual Disability and Education for Citizenship

  • Ashley TaylorEmail author
Part of the Critical Studies of Education book series (CSOE, volume 12)


The philosophical study of the role of schooling in preparing democratic citizens has tended to presume an able-minded learner. Dominant philosophical and theoretical models of democratic education consider neither the civic preparation of individuals with perceived intellectual disabilities in particular, nor the presumptions of able-mindedness that are built into theorizing about democracy and citizenship. As a result, democratic citizenship aims are frequently conceptualized according to an unevaluated assumption that civic preparation requires a particular level and display of intellectual ability, communicative competence, social independence, and behaviour. This unevaluated assumption parallels the presumed incompetence of individuals with perceived intellectual disabilities in other areas of education, a phenomenon that has been well documented by scholars of disability studies. This chapter builds on theory and research in Disability Studies in Education (DSE) and other areas of critical educational studies to challenge this assumption. In particular, I take up what Kliewer, Biklen, and Peterson refer to as the “metaphor” of intellectual disability, the sense in which “We do not literally see mental retardation; we infer its existence” (Kliewer et al. 2015, p. 22). I argue that this metaphor emerges within the context of citizenship education in particular and troubling ways. Intellectual ability—and disability—is actively constructed by and through gendered and racialized attachments to the notion of the ideal citizen. Individuals who are perceived to manifest undesirable differences in cognition, behaviour, communication, or performance appear to threaten notions of civic well-being, of nationhood, and of social reciprocity. In this sense, intellectual disability becomes a metaphor for civic threat. Consequently, educational theorizing around democratic citizenship education advances the metaphor of intellectual disability through a process of negation: the citizen is that which the person with intellectual disability is not or intellectual disability is that which is not citizenship. We do not see intellectual disability; we infer its existence through manifestations of non-citizenship.


Intellectual disability Citizenship Independence Philosophy Dis/ability 


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Colgate UniversityHamiltonUSA

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