Bodies in Revolt: Gender, Disability, and a Workplace Ethic of Care

By Santore, Daniel | Law & Society Review, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Bodies in Revolt: Gender, Disability, and a Workplace Ethic of Care


Santore, Daniel, Law & Society Review


Bodies in Revolt: Gender, Disability, and a Workplace Ethic of Care. By Ruth O'Brien. New York: Routledge, 2005. Pp. 198. $135.00 cloth; $36.95 paper.

What are the conditions under which workers' rights legislation can produce revolutionary change in the workplace? O'Brien proposes an answer to this question by marshaling an array of Western theories of bodies and human action, and considering the "radical potential" of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to O'Brien, the ADA's open-ended definition of worker need and its (as yet unrealized) affinity with humanist values make it a potential agent of change in the logic of the capitalist workplace. The ADA can benefit all workers, not simply discrete factions of workers or those workers fitting a narrow definition of disability, by making employers and courts accommodate individuals' varied modes of activity at work.

O'Brien asserts that the ADA offers workplace accommodations on the basis of individual, and thus endlessly varying, needs. This model of worker protection is substantively different from protections based on categorical identities, such as age, sex, or race. The ADA, O'Brien argues, provides a chance to view disability not as a fixed identity, but as a universal human condition that generates a range of unique needs. Disability so defined refers to variety in conditions of human activity (e.g., pregnancy, depression) and is not limited to those differences that tend to constitute the popular image of a "handicap" (e.g., developmental disability or physiological injury). O'Brien speculates that this inclusive interpretation of disability, if adopted energetically by political actors within certain ideal institutional arrangements, can generate a revolutionary collective consciousness among workers and perhaps even employers.

The heart of O'Brien's book presents (1) a conceptual framework for an "ethic of care" in the contemporary workplace, and (2) the social context in which this ethic might flourish. An ethic of care is an ideal orientation toward workers' needs that flows from emerging, inclusive definitions of disability. Drawing on feminist theories of difference and power, O'Brien outlines in Chapters Two and Three a "workers' cause" logic that eschews securing an equality of circumstances and rights among individuals, instead pursuing the benevolent accommodation of difference in the workplace. This represents a move away from using "normalcy" and "average capabilities" as measuring sticks for employer obligations toward employees; it also rejects the notion of disability as a static identity.

O'Brien arrives at this alternative workplace ethic of care after thoughtfully discussing competing theories of "bodies and being," including the work of Descartes, Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, and Spinoza. Those readers engaged with social theory will find much to like in O'Brien's broad theoretical readings. …

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