Eva Kittay – “Dependence”

Eva Kittay is a philosopher of disability and feminist studies who currently works at Stony Brook University in New York. Her essay “Dependency,” which appears as a chapter in the book Keywords in Disability Studies (2015, ed. Rachel Adams). In it, she considers the broader societal aversion to the notion of dependency, the implications this has for disabled populations and how it has shaped disability activism, and how we can reshape conversations surrounding dependency to accept and “manage” the inevitability of dependency.

She opens the essay by considering why humans so despise being considered “dependent” when humans, after all, are inherently a social species. In fact, the idea that independence and self-sufficiency is not only normal, or ideal, but the “only desirable state” leads to our negative attitudes towards those with disabilities who may rely on services, accomodations, or caretakers. 

Strangely, independence used to be considered impossible to achieve unless one belonged among the elite class of social organization. However, the paradigm shifted with the introduction of wage labor. Since then, it became such that those who weren’t involved in wage labor were considered to have some sort of “moral or psychological flaw” – this attitude largely persists today with those who rely on welfare, who are emotional, or who have substance abuse and addiction problems.


However, instead of viewing dependence as a condition that only affects some, Kittay urges us to consider dependence as a universal inevitability. Indeed, isn’t it true that all of us are largely dependent on others at least at some point in our lives, such as during childhood, old age, and even illness/injury? At the same time, she notes that caregivers and “dependency workers” become “derivatively dependent” as a natural condition of their occupation. This allows us to consider dependency as a state that affects all of us, so we can begin to break down the stigma of independent versus dependent people (i.e., “normal” versus disabled people).

Kittay then goes on to consider interventions in language put forth by disability activists to reframe the conversation surrounding the dependency stigma. For example, she considers the rewording of the dependency problem to a framework of “interdependency.” However, Kittay points out that while interdependency can be considered a helpful tool to recognize how many depend on others and are depended on in turn, there are some folks who are simply dependent and cannot care for others, who this framework does not have room for. Thus, the “problem” of dependency still remains.

But why is dependency considered a problem? Kittay suggests that this is largely because of our association of dependency with a condition that affects us all: childhood. When we are children, each of us is dependent on caretakers to meet our needs – this is a fact. However, the idea that with adulthood comes self-sufficiency and independence leads to the infantilization of those who remain dependent on others for care in some way. In this way, the pushback on “dependency” is a pushback on the treating of disabled individuals as children – people with no sexuality, who are “cute,” and who are “incompetent.” However, as Kittay emphasizes, dependency is not something that disappears with childhood as one enters adulthood – it is recurrent, and affects everyone (disabled and non-disabled) throughout their lives. This is a fact that Kittay urges there is a need for everyone to accept.

To return to disability advocacy, during the “first wave” of disability activism spearheaded by young disabled people in the 1990s, advocates challenged the notion that dependency is internal or inherent to individuals. In contrast, they emphasized the notion that disabled people can become independent with proper resources. This was an important moment for the disability community, as it led to the accessibility movement culminating with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, still a major resource today.

However, this first wave of disability activism had numerous problems with its messaging. First, it ignores that some disabled people can’t achieve the same level of self-determination as others, regardless of the resources and services provided to them – they will always need to be “cared for” due to the nature of their disability. Second, the notion that disabled folks can achieve independence is problematic because it presumes that with the right accommodations, disabled people can become “just as productive” as other workers and thus “pay back” the cost of the services they receive. However, this ties the worth of the individual to their productivity under capitalism and ignores the fact that for some disabled folks, no amount of accommodations will allow them to perform work. Moreover, there is a larger problem with emphasizing that disabled folks can become independent in this way, as it minimizes the needs of the care assistants some require to be independent and subordinates their desires to those of the disabled folks they care for; indeed, it’s worth noting that these care workers are most often women.

Thus, Kittay’s remaining questions include: How do we help disabled people reap the benefits of “independence” without further stigmatizing those who are unable to access that independence due to the nature of their disability? How do we avoid imposing dependency on disabled folks while accepting universal dependence? And lastly, how do we accept the condition of dependency without minimizing the needs and desires of care workers in favor of the disabled folks they care for?

Ultimately, Kittay argues that independence in society will always be at another’s expense unless we “weave dependency needs into the fabric of society.” As an example, she discusses the idea of “learned helplessness” versus “learned dependency” in elderly individuals via Margaret Baltes. In particular, she posits that pursuing independency in one’s old age, where physical and mental limitations constantly restrict this ability leads to internal feelings of helplessness. On the other hand, “managing” one’s dependency can be more rewarding. For example, an elderly patient may accept help in a task they could accomplish themselves, albeit with difficulty, in order to reserve energy for activities that are more engaging or enjoyable to them. 

In sum, Kittay concludes that reframing the pursuit of independence (or retaining independence, for those used to the “independent” life) should be reframed to a consideration of ways to manage one’s dependencies, or living a life of “managed dependence.” With this, she concludes:

“If we manage dependence, we acknowledge its presence in our lives, select and optimize the opportunities that such acknowledgment makes possible, and can better detect and protect against the fault lines that are part and parcel of our condition as dependent beings.  In its name we can demand a reordering of priorities and an assertion of entitlements that are our due, not because we can be independent and productive, but because our value derives from the chain of dependent relations that make all our lives possible. Bringing this understanding into the lifeblood of society can be a precious contribution from the community of disabled people.”