Author's School

Brown School

Author's Department

Social Work

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Originally Published In

Dubois, J. L., & Trani, J. F. (2009). Extending the capability paradigm to address the complexity of disability. ALTER - European Journal of Disability research, 3(3): 2-28.


Amartya Sen looks at people’s well-being in terms of functioning and freedom, rather than in terms of the amount of goods or services consumed. The capability approach developed by Sen deals with what people are able to achieve by using these commodities. Concerning disability, he wrote: “We must take note that a disabled person may not be able to do the many things that an able-bodied individual can, with the same bundle of commodities” (Sen, 1985 p.7). The capability approach makes it possible to analyse the economic situation of people with disabilities in a different way. What becomes important is their functioning, i.e. what they are able to achieve within a given context. In fact, the capability set includes not only what a person is effectively able to achieve, but also the potential functionings that he/she can choose. This expresses the degree of freedom that a person with disability benefits from in a given environment. The challenge is therefore to reduce the constraints that the environment adds to a person’s impairment in order to expand their capability set, and to allow them to live a life which they value. This paper reviews the paradigms that address disability and the ways of assessing a person’s capability set within this framework. Achieved functionings are easily measured through cross-sectional surveys, using counterfactual analysis to compare the situations of disabled and non-disabled people. This was done in 2005 in Afghanistan when a national disability survey was carried out on a random sample of households. Measuring detailed capabilities, especially their freedom dimension, is quite complex and requires identifying people’s potential choices in an ever-changing environment. This implies a need to extend the philosophical framework, and to adopt appropriate statistical methodologies.


© <2009>. This manuscript version is made available under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license DOI: 10.1016/j. alter.2009.04.003