Feminist theories of freedom and intellectual disability: new ways forward for the concept of encounter

Dr Stacy Clifford Simplican

In this workshop, we will explore how feminist theories of freedom can inform the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities, particularly around the concept of encounter. Feminists have developed accounts of freedom that pay attention to the role of patriarchy in constraining the choices of women and, also, to the ways women achieve agency – even amid oppressive contexts. This bifurcated attention to the realities of oppression and the recognition of agency might be helpful to the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities: here too researchers need to interweave attention to the constrained social environments in which people with intellectual disabilities live and, at the same time, recognize how people with intellectual and developmental disabilities express and achieve agency. The aim of the workshop is give participants a richer understanding of freedom. I argue that we need a theory of freedom that shifts our attention from choice, control, and individualism toward qualities like action, spontaneity, and relationality. Doing so can inform recent work on the concept of encounter. Researchers use the concept of encounter to capture the kinds of social interactions that people with intellectual disabilities experience. I argue that situating these findings in the landscape of freedom, and not just social inclusion, helps justify why facilitating encounters is so important, particularly for support agencies and support staff. Finally, workshop participants will consider how empirical research in the field of IDD can help refine feminist theories of freedom.


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.