Infantilisation in care, community and cognitive disability

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Flynn, Ruadhán J.
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University College Cork
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This thesis presents a concept and theory of infantilisation, which can be summarized as follows: Infantilisation involves conceiving of an adult as having the subjectivity or personhood of a child and treating them on that basis. This treatment has four distinguishing features: ‘baby talk’, infantilizing activities and environments, desexualisation, and stasis. Infantilised adults are presumed to have some level of cognitive impairment, denied personal autonomy, and experience limits on their liberty and mobility. These treatments stem from and are motivated by the conceptual root of infantilisation. This project was undertaken in response to a gap in the philosophical literature. The term ‘infantilisation’ has occasionally been used descriptively but otherwise left largely unexamined within philosophy. In other disciplines, where it has sporadically been the subject of some research for fifty years, the term has been used to refer primarily to linguistic phenomena (namely, ‘baby talk’), although more recent work has uncovered a network of non-linguistic treatments and structures which are now seen as part of infantilisation (Dolinsky, 1984; Hepworth, 1996; Cassidy, 1997; Salari, 2006; Brady, et al., 2014; Capri & Swartz, 2017; Jongsma & Schweda, 2018). Additionally, research on attitudes towards disabled and elderly people has brought out the conceptual background to infantilisation (Dorozenko, et al., 2015; Robey, et al., 2006; Nario‐Redmond, et al., 2019). Still, infantilisation has so far primarily been discussed and studied as a way of treating people. Its conceptual foundations have been essentially unexplored. I dedicate Chapter 1 of this thesis to these conceptual foundations, focusing on how people are conceived of when they are infantilized. I argue that they are conceived of as being children in the bodies of adults: as adult bodies with the subjectivities or personhood of children. Understanding this conceptual basis is crucial in understanding the treatments which stem from it. It is also crucial in separating infantilisation from paternalism, especially as infantilisation seems to occur most often in situations where some level of paternalism may be appropriate. I argue that infantilisation is conceptually distinct from paternalism, and that clarity on this is necessary if the ensuing treatments are to be properly understood. The concept ‘child’ cannot be applied to an adult without conflict. In Chapter 2 I develop a theory of infantilisation. I show how infantilisation is enacted. To do this, I draw on research from multiple disciplines and geographical regions. I use this research to show four distinguishing features of infantilisation: ‘baby talk’, infantilizing activities and environments, desexualisation, and stasis. These features result directly from the conceptual foundation of infantilisation just outlined, they are not found even in cases of severe paternalism, and they reflect the conflict which occurs when the concept ‘child’ is applied to an adult. In Chapter 3, I argue that infantilisation is demonstrably harmful and conceptually wrongful, but that a graded understanding of blame-worthiness – one with strong epistemic conditions - should apply to those perpetuating infantilisation.
Infantilisation , Disability studies , Cognitive disability , Care ethics , Dementia , Institutional care , Philosophy of disability , Down's syndrome , Disability advocacy , Intellectual disability , Disabled adults , Elderly care , Gerontology , Attitudes to disability , Ableism , Eugenics , Infantilization , Paternalism
Flynn, R. J. 2021. Infantilisation in care, community and cognitive disability. MRes Thesis, University College Cork.
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