Children’s rights and accommodation

I want to flag this post about eliminating the voting age from Katrina Moncure, who is involved in the Youth Rights movement:

So what do I recommend? No voting age or test at all? So that even a 4-year-old can wander into the polling place and cast her ballot? Some youth rights people say things like “she can’t read the ballot anyway, she can’t reach it, she wouldn’t want to”. Which, honestly, is still very disenfranchising language. Supporting her having the right to vote must include support for her having the ability. Voting right now, being open to only adults, is built for adults. If young kids had the franchise too, then the voting system would have to change to accommodate their smaller sizes, lesser likelihood of being able to read the choices, their lesser ability to travel to the polling place. Perhaps pre-K classes could go to the polls together and file one by one into little child-sized voting booths with voting machines designed for people who may not be able to read well, that maybe lights up the candidate’s names and says out loud who they are. Whatever the case, even though even with adults there are lots of accessibility concerns (lots of people’s polling places are accessible only by car, essentially disenfranchising those who don’t drive and can’t get a ride and can’t mail in their ballot, for example), accessibility would become a much bigger issue with enfranchised children. You can’t just say they have the right to vote. You have to make sure they are able to if they want to. That will have to come with a lot more youth liberation advances down the road, which I should think would be in place by the time abolishing the voting age entirely would be at all feasible. Hell, just lowering it to 16, which is virtually free of these extra accessibility issues, is hard enough!

The idea of “children’s rights” such as letting 5-year-olds vote can seem absurd. And in one sense I think we can say that it is absurd: in a society structured around excluding children from participation, of course it is almost-unimaginable to think of children participating. But Moncure’s point is really important: support for rights is only meaningful if it is also support for capacities. For children’s rights to mean anything, they have to have opportunities to exercise them, and that means that social institutions would have to change to accommodate them. The connection to disability is crucial, since there, at least to some extent, we have tools for thinking about the interplay between institutions and capacities, and the importance of accommodation for the exercise of “rights.” But the idea that children are by definition unable to make choices about their interests is both false and offensive.

(One way to think about this is that negative freedoms — “freedom from” — are always an exclusive, adult-ist construct, and all real freedoms are positive freedoms — “freedom to”. We all depend on social institutions that accommodate our particular needs and characteristic in order to develop and exercise our capacities, and its not at all clear why positive freedoms, or a capability approach, can’t apply to children as well.)