Critiquing approaches to community participation of people with intellectual disabilities

Stacy Clifford Simplican

While much research aims to understand how to increase the community participation of people with intellectual disabilities, my research problematizes the concept of community participation itself. There are three parts of my critique. First, I argue that researchers tend to draw upon a communitarian ethos to imagine community participation. This tendency over-emphasizes the values of sameness, harmony, and a sense of belonging. Second, I argue that this communitarian ethos narrows how researchers conceptualize the person with an intellectual disability. Drawing on feminist and radical democratic theory, I propose alternative ways to conceptualize the community and the self, as well as the kinds of purposes and emotions that might make inclusion valuable. Broadening the concept of community participation, however, runs counter to calls within the field of intellectual disability for a clear, coherent, and singular definition. Hence, my third critique of approaches to community participation is that they fail to appreciate the need for and benefits of conceptual ambiguity.


Stacy Clifford Simplican is a Senior Lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies. She received her PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University in 2011. Her book, The Capacity Contract: Intellectual Disability and the Question of Citizenship (2015), analyzes the role of intellectual disability in political theory, American history, and the political strategies of self-advocates with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As a postdoctoral research fellow at Michigan State University and the National University of Ireland Galway, Stacy developed an interdisciplinary research agenda on the social inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and her work in this area appears in Research in Developmental Disabilities, Disability & Society, and Research and Practice in Intellectual Disability. Overall, Stacy’s work uses insights from democratic and feminist theory to rethink key concepts in the field of intellectual disabilities, while also using the experiences of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to revise ideas and norms around democratic citizenship.