Infantilization, Dehumanization & Cognitive Disability

This is a cross-post with the blog of the British Postgraduate Philosophy Association – here I’m giving an overview of the argument I’ll be making at the BPPA seminar on Friday March 26th (which is itself an overview of some of my current Masters research). In this post, I first set out what I mean by dehumanization, and then introduce infantilization as a further, as-yet unexamined process of dehumanization. I argue that, as with other forms of dehumanization, infantilization is both a social injustice and a conceptual failure.

You can sign up to attend the full seminar here – it’s free, will be closed-captioned (in English), and everyone is welcome.

Composite image: the background is a colour photograph of a rocky mountain landscape topped with grey sky. In the center foreground are two old black and white striped signposts about a metre apart: the sign is missing or has been removed. Overlaid on this image are the partly transparent head and shoulder silhouettes of three human figures.

First a note on terminology: I’m using ‘cognitively disabled people’ as a political rather than an ontological sortal: what they have in common is how they are perceived and treated, not in their embodied or subjective experience or some neurological or biological reality. When I say ‘cognitively disabled people’ here, I’m referring primarily to people usually termed ‘intellectually disabled’, ‘intellectually impaired’ or ‘cognitively impaired’; I have settled for ‘cognitive’, as I take it to include processes of knowing, perceiving, reasoning, and awareness. I have settled for ‘disability’ in place of ‘impairment’ because I want the more relational concept. Finally, I mostly use ‘person-first’ language – ‘cognitively disabled people’ rather than ‘people with cognitive disabilities’. The designator ‘cognitively disabled people’ is imperfect and open to future revision, but it’s the one I’ll be using for now.


Although dehumanization has recently received some thorough philosophical attention, there is still significant variance in what is meant when the term is used. As I see it, most analyses of dehumanization are roughly psychological: they’re about ways of conceiving of other people, especially conceiving of them as less than full or real humans, or less than full persons. Mari Mikkola’s account is distinctive in that it largely rejects psychological analyses; she argues that dehumanization is a feature of acts and ways of treating others, not thinking of them as objects or as less than human. I think it’s important to get both the concepts and the acts in view; hence my claim that dehumanization is both a social injustice and a conceptual failure.

With so much variance in what is meant by the term, it’s important to say what I mean by it before waving it around. For me; dehumanization is a psychological process of hybridizing an individual or group so that they become less than fully human or less than full persons, and it is a feature of acts and behaviours perpetuated on this basis.

People can be hybridized through different processes. The most familiar processes from the literature are animalization and objectification. With animalization, an individual or group is conceived of as being outwardly human but internally part-animal, or partly some other non-human creature. The target of animalization is therefore not entirely human; importantly, they are not only other than human – they are less than human. Animalization has been discussed in analyses of genocides, slavery, racism, and ethnic cleansing. Objectification has been developed primarily within feminist philosophy. Although there is again some variance in interpretation, broadly it is understood that the target of objectification is thought of as less than a full person; they are externally human, but their personhood is diminished. They are akin to an inert object, or they can be treated like an object. Both animalization and objectification seem to me to be hybridizing processes: in neither case is the target literally an animal or an object, but they instead become an uncertain, neither/nor hybrid of the two.

Cognitively disabled people have, historically and pervasively, been conceptualized in these ways: as animals, apes, cabbages, plants, vegetables, dogs. It’s important to note that this is not just a linguistic performance. It’s not just cruel name-calling. The animalized or objectified other is conceived of as being somewhere between a human and an animal; somewhere between a person and an object. This hybridity pushes them to the periphery of the human moral community, or across that perceived boundary altogether. Their abuse or neglect can then become morally permissible, or just morally indifferent. That’s how the conceptual dehumanization of cognitively disabled people has enabled acts like forced sterilization, eugenics, institutional abuse, denial of healthcare, and genocide.

The exclusion of cognitively disabled people from most existing accounts of dehumanization may well be an oversight. As I see it, existing accounts of dehumanization can capture many instances where cognitively disabled people are affected. But animalization and objectification of cognitively disabled people is now generally (or at least publicly) recognized as objectionable or morally wrong. I think the dominant conception of cognitively disabled people now comes about through infantilization: the eternal child; the return to childhood; the child in the body of an adult. In the second part of this seminar, I draw on empirical studies to demonstrate how cognitively disabled people are infantilized, and I argue that infantilization is another process of dehumanization.


The infantilization of cognitively disabled people is apparent in the language used about them and toward them, and in the ways they are treated. It involves ‘baby talk’, childish nicknames, substitution of collective pronouns, and overly intimate endearments. It involves scolding, threatening and reprimanding adults in a manner otherwise reserved for infants. Across studies, cognitively disabled adults complained that they had no privacy, or their lack of privacy was observed by researchers: staff entered bedrooms at any time without knocking and discussed clients medical and personal details loudly in public settings. Infantilization is apparent in the idea of the ‘eternal child’, used to conceptualise adults born cognitively disabled; also in the idea that dementia represents a second childhood or a return to childhood. People are stripped of their adult status or never allowed to attain it. Markers of adulthood, like marriage, sex, work, education, travel, socializing, drinking alcohol, are to varying degrees frowned upon, discouraged, socially proscribed or legally prohibited for cognitively disabled adults. They are not spoken to as adults, treated as adults, or conceived of as adults. They are, as philosopher Sophia Isako Wong says, “pervasively treated like perpetual children misplaced into mature bodies”.

Infantilization means the cognitively disabled adult is not conceived of as an adult. We might think then, given the language used toward them and treatment they receive, that they are conceived of as children. But it’s not that simple. Just as it seems psychologically impossible to see a human in front of you and literally conceive of them as an animal or an inert object, it’s clear that infantilized adults are not conceived of as literally children. They frequently do not have the free access to social interaction typically available to children. They do not have a non-disabled child’s claims to education. They are not encouraged to imagine and aspire toward the life-stages expected for children. This indicates the key difference between a child and an infantilized adult: an infantilized adult does not get to grow up.

The infantilized adult is neither an adult nor a child; through the process of infantilization they become an indistinct and uncertain hybrid of the two. They are stripped of the characteristics which define either of these life stages and thereby placed outside of the natural order.

The features often used to determine personhood – both within philosophy and in broader social thought – include rationality, language use, memory; a certain level of cognitive functioning. Without these features, it’s typically thought that the essence of the person is absent. Cognitively disabled people are routinely thought of as less than full persons, or as not being persons at all. And as these cognitive features are often taken to be definitive of the human species – that being thinking, rational creatures is what separates us from other animals – cognitively disabled people become not only less than full persons, but less than fully human. Whichever hybridizing process is used – infantilization, animalization, objectification, or any other – their hybridity and their less than human, less than person status leaves them dehumanized. So, the infantilization of cognitively disabled people is dehumanizing; as such it is both a social injustice and a conceptual failure.

To attend the full seminar on Friday March 26th 2021 at 4pm GMT, register here.

Thanks to the BPPA for including me in their seminar series – you can see the rest of the schedule here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *