Adaptive Sports and Capabilities

We Play Foundation

Enrique R. Carrasco

Most if not all of us will agree with the proposition that the more opportunities for a person to pursue a fulfilling life, the better. We tell our kids, whether in our families or in our communities, “the sky’s the limit.” But many of us—we really can’t say “most if not all”—know there are frightening barriers to opportunities. They can range from race and gender discrimination, to income and wealth inequalities, to a bullet. We can’t seem to go a day without being reminded of them.

But what about persons with disabilities? Not so often, right? Yet we frequently confront literal barriers, such as a woman rolling to an elevator at a metro station, assuming there is one that exists, only to find that it’s out of order. She curses under her breath as she watches her fellow walking commuters stepping onto the escalators to the train platform, taking that convenience for granted. Add to that the societal attitudes that add the “dis” to abilities.

Unfairness all around. Well, then, how would we fashion a framework to secure a fair society for all? Say we come up with a thought experiment where we wipe away all forms of discrimination and implement a rough version of Andrew Yang’s Freedom Dividend, that is, from the start everyone over the age of 18 gets a certain amount of income per month, adjusted for individuals and families, with the aim of using the income to pursue what they deem to be a good life. We can call it the Freedom Income Initiative. Eventually a portion of society will make more than the rest because of their choices, but out of fairness the thought experiment dictates that the least advantaged would benefit from the system. That would do it, wouldn’t it?

Maybe not. Let’s look at a hypothetical to see why this thought experiment without more wouldn’t be fair to the extent that it doesn’t ensure equal opportunities.

Let’s say we have two families making the same comfortable income. They each have a child, Juan and Juanita, who has a passion for tennis. They each have enough income to buy the best racquets and private lessons for their kids and to take them to competitions. They each hope that if their child chooses to do so, they can play ball at a good college and after undergraduate school they can go pro or go to graduate school and choose any discipline that will propel them to a rewarding career. This sounds fair as both have the income to make these choices. The Freedom Income Initiative pays off. Done. Next!

Not so fast. Let’s add another critical fact to the hypo: Juan is in a wheelchair. If we judge fairness through the lens of income alone we are indeed done, even though Juan can’t without more play tennis. So the trajectory I’ve described isn’t available to Juan. In other words, the thought experiment fails to take into account the individual’s ability to convert income into various functions such as playing tennis. To be fair, we need to look at a person’s capabilities. In other words, we have to determine what’s needed to enable Juan to be capable of playing tennis. He doesn’t have to play tennis, but he should be capable of playing the sport should he choose to do so.

So where do we start? Well, we need to conceptualize how the game of tennis should be modified to play in a wheelchair, say, allow two bounces instead of one but otherwise keep the same tennis rules. Then we need to develop a sports wheelchair to enable the player to maneuver quickly around the court—I’ve tried to play in a regular wheelchair and it’s torture. We also need to train coaches in the sport and provide training facilities and tournaments. And let’s develop college programs and pro circuits.

What I’ve described is the Capabilities Approach (CA) to assessing fairness and wellbeing. Pioneered by the Nobel Prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, the CA is a critique of the resource-based philosophy of John Rawls. In Rawls’s thought experiment a fair society would in part give persons a fair share of income to pursue their life goals, the comfortable income in my hypothetical. Sen argues that’s not enough. You also have to look at the ability to convert the income into capabilities.

This foundation-sponsored initiative will explore through various papers and otherwise how adaptive sports promote capabilities within the CA framework. Ultimately we have to ask a crucial question: Assuming the CA is the best framework for promoting fairness and wellbeing via adaptive sports, who’s going to pay for it? More precisely, what institutions, if any, should have a duty to pay for what is needed to promote capabilities in the context of adaptive sports? Maybe there’s no duty at all. Maybe it’s just a matter of human kindness and goodwill, aka philanthropy. Let’s find out, shall we?

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