Posted on 5 February 2021 in africa, disability, law, long read, symposia

ISRF Symposium: An African Path to Disability Justice

In January 2021, former ISRF Fellow Oche Onazi discussed his book An African Path to Disability Justice with Julie Maybee and Tom Shakespeare.


ISRF Academic Editor

What is disability justice? What are its conceptual foundations? What are its conceptual foundations in Africa?

An online ISRF event in January 2021 brought former ISRF Fellow Oche Onazi and two other noted experts on these topics––namely Professor Julie Maybee (CUNY) and Professor Tom Shakespeare (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine)––to discuss Dr Onazi’s important new book, An African Path to Disability Justice: Community, Relationships and Obligations.

This edited symposium draws together the contributions of all three speakers, as an aide-mémoire for those present at the event and a resource for those unable to join us. A video of the event is available here.

OCHE ONAZI: What I’ll try to do, very briefly, is to talk about the central motivation for writing this book, and then briefly outline what I was trying to achieve. I started thinking about this book mainly because of the lack of attention to disability and people with disabilities in the most attractive literature on the concept of community in African philosophy. And so rather than taking the conventional human rights approach and the capabilities approach, I specifically became interested in exploring what the legal philosophy of Disability Justice would look like from an African relational ideal.

Looking at the literature in African philosophy, we see that most writers talk about an African concept of community, and yet they mean two different but related things. Predominantly, although the concept of community is seen as an attribute of a group, it also refers to a relational ideal founded on ethical and horizontal obligations between people who may or may not comprise it. And so apart from presupposing a compassion-based or moral civic order, what is attractive about this version of community is that it’s formed through relationships. It’s not a metaphysical entity.  It does not have an existence that is separate from or takes precedence over its members. 

One of the most attractive definitions of this concept of community is provided by Drucilla Cornell, who eloquently describes the community as something that is not outside us, something over there, but is inscribed in us. What she means is that community is an interactive ethic, or an ontic orientation, in which who and how you can be as human beings is always shaped in our interaction with each other. So what Cornell importantly draws our attention to is not just how the community is formed or constituted but, importantly, how the process of constituting the community defines what it means to be a person. And personhood, in this context, is achieved, earned, or granted only to those who can discharge their obligations to others. In other words, personhood is dependent on a type of mutual reciprocity between each member of the community. By contrast, those who cannot perform their obligations are not considered as persons—they are only human beings, which is a lower or inferior moral status. 

Now, it’s this distinction or hierarchy between persons and human beings that to me presents difficulties for people with disabilities, especially people with cognitive and extreme physical disabilities. It does not necessarily lead to the denial of their status as human beings. Rather, it leads to an inferior status, and makes them less worthy of moral consideration. This certainly explains why people with disabilities tend to be missing from the demanding standards of mutual obligations, synonymous with being part of a relational community or indeed, any type of African community. 

Although my book takes the relational conception of community as its core element of defining Disability Justice, it relies on a different conception of personhood that appears to be inclusive of people with disabilities. My proposals are modelled on the Nso conception of personhood, which is associated with or is derived from the Nso people of southern Cameroon. Unlike the dominant conception, this one does not rigidly define individuals or place them in a hard analytical frame, by specifying the necessary and sufficient criteria of being human. It makes no distinction between persons and human beings. And it does not rank human beings according to their individuating features, whether this is age, status, or disability. It’s open-ended, non-essentialist, and accommodates changes in the characteristics of human being. The advantage of this conception of personhood for me is that it widens the scope of people to whom obligations are owed. Since moral consideration of others is not contingent on individual features, being a human being is the only criterion to be the recipient of the obligations of others. 

This is my starting point. And from this foundation, I choose the relational conception of community as the ethical foundation of my proposed legal philosophy of Disability Justice, and I present it as its first principle and source of other principles of Disability Justice. And once the relational conception of community is taken as a core element of Disability Justice, it importantly brings to the agenda the importance of relationships. And here, the focus of the approach is on the kind of relationships that elude people with disabilities, as well as the social and cultural beliefs or perceptions that prevent them from enjoying community relationships due to their bodily, sensory or mental impairments. 

The focus on relationships not only sheds light on the exclusion that people with disabilities in Africa experience, but also the kinds of interventions that can be made to include them into community relationships. And so, from this perspective, issues like poverty can be understood, not just economically, but as a factor that prevents people with disabilities from experiencing or sharing community with others. The same can be said about the lack of access to health care, food, education, housing, or employment opportunities: they are all obstacles to sharing community relationships. 

The third ideal I speak about revolves around obligations, the obligations that should be owed to people with disabilities, either by the state or by people without disabilities. So, in contrast to the routine characterization of obligations in African philosophy as symmetrical concepts, I propose an asymmetrical conception of obligations as a more attractive and inclusive approach, since it does not stringently demand mutual reciprocity. And so I argue that once asymmetry is appreciated and taken seriously, it’s much easier to justify and extend obligations to people.

In combination, these ideals—community, relationships and obligations—serve as a criterion for evaluating, criticizing, and modifying existing legal or political institutions, as well as for creating new ones, to ensure that we include people with disabilities within the range of relationships characteristic of a community. Through these ideals, the proposed legal philosophy of Disability Justice mainly becomes an aid to critically evaluate whether people with disabilities are part and parcel of various forms of community. Therefore, disability injustice is simply the exclusion of people with disabilities from those forms of community. 

Although the scope of the book is to set out what an African philosophy of Disability Justice would look like, I go a bit further in outlining how to realize these obligations in practice. And in spite of its limitations, I’ve turned to tax as a bridging concept that can transform moral obligations into legally binding commitments of people without disabilities to people with disabilities. Tax here is not just a source of revenue, but an instrument that helps members of the community share the burdens of living together, which must entail taking care of the most vulnerable amongst them. So tax can be used to translate the moral obligations of people without disabilities into resources that can be channelled to removing the numerous barriers that prevent the full inclusion of people with disabilities into community.

JULIE MAYBEE: I came to disability studies and the philosophy of disability long after I had been working on African philosophy. When I started working in disability studies, I was already familiar with African philosophers’ discussions of the relatively widespread communalistic values that can be found in a number of different individual cultures on the African continent, as well as the ways in which these values shape African philosophers’ discussions of ethics.

I was also familiar with these philosophers’ criticisms of what they argue is the overly individualistic Western conception of human rights. So Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, for instance, as well as African political scientist Claude Ake, have criticized the traditional Western view that individual rights are absolute, arguing that such a conception is contrary to African communalism. Wiredu also criticized the list of rights that Westerners typically offer for leaving out more communalistic rights that would have been recognized in his own culture of birth, the Akan culture, such as the right of an infant to have nourishment. 

When I came to disability studies later, I immediately noticed the values often supported by disability activists and scholars echoed those discussed by African philosophers. Because of the close connections I saw between African and disability values, I have woven discussions of African philosophy into my own thinking about liberation strategies for disabled people. But Oche offers an ingenious and direct way of bringing these values together. He proposes that we simply build a communalistic conception of Disability Justice based on African values. This conception can then be used not only to design new institutions and social structures that will ensure that they are consistent with and pursue Disability Justice, but also to assess existing institutions and social structures. 

Oche’s main interest is in developing a conception of Disability Justice for the African context. As John Murungi notes in his foreword to the book, Oche’s goal is to use African resources, namely communalistic conceptions of value that are already fairly widespread in Africa, to mobilize Africans to implement policies that will address what he describes as the dire conditions that many disabled people face in many African countries. But I think his proposal is appealing for any country. So, I want to start by saying a few words about this view. 

The main difference between Western conceptions of individual rights and communalistic approaches, Oche suggests, is that communalistic approaches privilege duties—or as he prefers to call them, obligations to others—over rights. As he mentioned, he contrasts Ifeanyi Menkiti’s group-based conception of community with Thaddeus Metz’s relational conception of community and he prefers the latter over the former. Menkiti’s group-based conception emphasizes vertical relationships between the individual and the community conceived of as a particular group, a clan, or more broadly, perhaps, a culture.

This conception of community is typically tied to what we can think of as a prescriptive concept of the person. A descriptive concept of personhood just describes what a person is, whereas a prescriptive concept of a person says what a good person should be. And according to the prescriptive conception of a person, one can be more or less of a person, depending on the amount of personhood you have earned in the community by performing your obligations in relation to the community. In my view, Oche rightly argues that this view poses problems for Disability Justice. Like traditional Western capacity-based conceptions of personhood, in which personhood is defined in terms of people’s rational capacities, for instance, grounding a conception of personhood in a capacity for carrying out obligations to the community risks excluding some disabled people from full personhood. 

But I think Oche is right to be sceptical of basing conception of personhood on any kind of capacity. He therefore rejects the prescriptive account of personhood in favour of a purely descriptive account that makes no distinction between a human being and a person. And I think that’s the right way to go. A person’s moral status as a human being entitles the person to be part of their community relationships, and that’s the end of the story. Disability injustice is now defined, then, for Oche, as “the set of obstacles or the features of a society that curtail a person’s ability to take part, share or experience different forms of community relationships.”[1] And Disability Justice is the obligation to create and evaluate political and legal institutions that “promote, nurture, strengthen and sustain communal relationships and the experiences of people with disabilities.”[2] What this offers us, I think, is a test for our existing social structure. So what does such a test look like?

In my own work, I’ve criticised various social institutions and structures for excluding disabled people. And I’ve urged us to unmake disability or find ways to remove the disabling aspects of our institutions and structures to include disabled people. I’ve paid particular attention to capitalism as one of the main structures and institutions that not only, in my view, constructed disability as a social category, but also has led to the exclusion of people defined as disabled, not only from the economic system, but from our social world more generally. This makes capitalism unjust on Oche’s account, because they violate our obligations to promote communal relationships with and the experiences of disabled people.

In an effort to explore alternative institutional arrangements, Oche proposes that Disability Justice could be pursued through tax schemes, perhaps even hypothecated tax schemes such as an alcohol tax, in which the money goes to a National Disability Service charged with dispersing funds to support disabled people. These sorts of schemes would be justified as a way in which non-disabled people would be living up to their obligations to disabled people, which I think is a wonderful argument. While Oche is aware that there might be limitations to being able to implement such tax schemes in Africa due to poverty, for example, or opposition to the consumption of alcohol, for instance, in the case of that kind of scheme, I think that the account of Disability Justice provides just the right justification for tax schemes used to support disabled people, as well as other people in a society who need help.

TOM SHAKESPEARE: One reason I was so pleased to see Oche’s book is that back in 2000, I wrote a short book called Help, in which I refer to the concept of ubuntu. This idea that’s found in the work of John Mbiti, and that I got from Desmond Tutu, is all about, I think, an aspect of what Oche is talking about here, of this communitarian philosophy in Africa. And I just referred to it. But what you get in Oche’s book is a thorough, scholarly legal philosophy of this nonreciprocal altruism, which is so profoundly helpful for disability scholars in the global north, let alone the global south. 

Many of us have some scepticism about the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is the only show in town when it comes to legal rights and disability. It’s so individualist, it excludes the family, it doesn’t have enough to say about community, and therefore we find it lacking. Then we turn to, for instance, Martha Nussbaum’s capability theory and we find all sorts of problems with that. And then to Eva Feder Kittay’s wonderful critique of John Rawls, but she’s still within the contractarian tradition of John Rawls. And then Oche comes along and shows us, by analysing all those works, exactly how limited they are. And this individualism is like the water within which a fish swims, that failure to understand its dominance accounts for many of these problems. As Oche says beautifully, it’s not just rights, it’s also love and compassion which should influence our relations with each other. And I find it a very, very helpful contribution to my thinking. 

So what can I ask? What can I critique? Well, I think it’s really important for us to build empathy between non-disabled and disabled people. I think it’s really important to draw on values of solidarity, which are not uniquely African, but are global. And what I worry about, Oche, is that in approaching this topic you talk about simulation exercises. Now, I can see why it’s helpful to understand what it might be like to be disabled. But I think what it is to be disabled, it’s an experience of injustice, as much as an experience of impairment. It’s bad treatment in society, not just being unable to walk or see. So I do think that some educational intervention is vital. But I think that it has to go beyond simulation exercises. And I wanted to challenge you on that, and ask whether you still hold to that emphasis on simulation.

The other question I have for you, arises, from my experience, as limited as it is, of research in Africa. I remember talking to a guy, and he was successful. He was a tailor on a street market in Lusaka, and he had three children, he had a partner, and he was doing well—he was not rich, but he was not struggling in the way that poverty and begging implies. And I said, “How do you account for your success?” And he said, “the grace of God.” And so, in Africa, as we know, there is a tremendous emphasis on Christianity. At least, I’m not saying that the grace of God had nothing to do with it. But in his case, the grace of God was expressed through his sister, who bought in the sewing machine, which enabled him to learn a living; his brother-in-law, who paid for the lessons that enabled him to be a productive street tailor; and, for example, the man in the street who saw him limping and brought him a crutch. So in this man’s eyes the grace of God was expressed through people. And I was interested in this. When I worked in Africa, so many people I interviewed said, “I was the only person in my family who went to school,” and then they went on to actually educating their siblings and to educate the younger children in their family. Perhaps they’re even educating unrelated orphans from their village. So there is clearly a tremendous emphasis in many traditional African communities on helping everybody and not just helping oneself. How much does this owe to Christianity? Where does that fit in, within your scheme of things?I think this book will be helpful to all of us theorizing disability in the years ahead. I hope you don’t stop with this. I hope you continue with it. I would love to have further discussions with you, in person, after this terrible virus, because there’s so much to learn, understand, and grow with in this book. Thank you.

OCHE ONAZI: Just to say, thank you very much for those comments. And I agree with entirely everything that was said. First of all, to respond to the question about religion that Tom highlights, I think in Africa, that can be an important source of alleviation. So in response to the question about Christianity and generally religion in Africa, I think on the one hand, it has created a problem in certain interpretations of the Bible that, if you like, discriminate against people with disabilities. And on the other hand, this especially relevant when you look at the absence of the state, especially the more gruesome African experience, where the state doesn’t touch the lives of the poor and all they’ve had is religion. So in some ways, they are at the mercy of the preachers, the pastors, the imams, and most of them, in my view, only interpret what the doctrine suggests, explaining their conditions for what it should be. So religion for me can be a force for good, but I think for the most part, it does contribute to that status of most people with disabilities as something like a curse from God, if you like.

To turn to Julie’s comments, I agree entirely with her interpretation of what I was trying to do, and the problems with it, and those are problems I had. One specific problem is taking literally what obligations entail in African philosophy, and literally translating it into practice. And I do talk about this in the book. And so tax, for me, seems to be an attractive mechanism because of its obligatory nature, but also because it would depend on the ability to pay tax. 

Coming back to the question of disability simulation, I think that idea comes to me from Simone Weil, where she talks about human suffering and the understanding of suffering. And her work is sceptical about rights, sceptical because of its epistemic quality to just see and recognise suffering in society. Weil’s response to that question is about education; it’s about the idea of attention. And attention, for her, means literally going through that phenomenological experience, of feeling, of going through what the person in pain or in need experiences. I do acknowledge that is not possible with disability. But I think that—and perhaps this is from my experience growing up in Nigeria, and before coming to the UK, so I can’t really speak about other parts of Africa—that there has to be something that enables people to come to terms with what it means to live in that sort of society with a disability. If simulations don’t do that, then something else is needed. And that is what I was trying to argue, not that I thought that simulations are the ideal way to get that. And that is, I think, something about the broad approach that I take, that, unfortunately—and this ties in Julie’s comments about capitalism—that it’s capitalism that has had a decisive impact on Africa. And many of those very attractive worldviews, especially the idea of community, are simply being lost. I think that is becoming evident. How do we re-engage with what is attractive? I’m not saying that everything’s attractive about African thought. But I think that a compassion-based relational approach is what we should hold on to as it can potentially be attractive not just to Africans, but it can be what Africans can give to the world.

About the Contributors

Oche Onazi ISRF

Oche Onazi is Senior Lecturer in law at the University of Northumbria. Oche holds degrees from the Universities of Edinburgh (Ph.D.), Warwick (LL.M.) and Jos (LL.B.) and is a qualified (but non-practising) barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Oche’s research interests cover areas of legal philosophy, law and development and human rights. His recent work focuses on the possibility, meaning and application of African legal philosophy, African legal theory and African jurisprudence. He is the author of Human Rights from Community: A Rights-Based Approach to Development  (Edinburgh University Press 2013) and editor of African Legal Theory and Contemporary Problems (Springer 2014).

Julie Maybee is Professor of Philosophy and the director of the interdisciplinary Disability Studies Program at Lehman College. She also teaches in the Disability Studies Masters Program for CUNY’s School of Professional Studies. Her research areas include 19th century Continental philosophy, particularly the work of G. W. F. Hegel, African philosophy, race and philosophy, and Disability Studies. What unites her specialties is an overriding interest in the way socially defined differences as well as time and place shape people’s identities, knowledge and experiences. Prof. Maybee is currently finishing a book on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

Tom Shakespeare is Professor of Disability Research at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He has taught and researched at the Universities of Sunderland, Leeds, Newcastle and East Anglia. His qualitative social research has been with disabled people, in the UK and Africa, exploring social and economic consequences of impairment and illness. From 2008-2013, Tom was a technical officer at the World Health Organisation, Geneva, where he co-authored and co-edited the World Report on Disability (2011) and International Perspectives on Spinal Cord Injury (2014). His books include: The Sexual Politics of Disability (1996); Disability Rights and Wrongs (2006; 2014); and Disability – the Basics (2017).


[1] Oche Onazi, An African Path to Disability Justice: Community, Relationships and Obligations (Cham 2020: Springer), 123.

[2] Ibid., 124.