Beyond Inclusive Syllabi

[Occasionally, I will (re)post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY essays, data, or other information that I previously posted on the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog. The following post appeared on Discrimination and Disadvantage  in October of last year.]

Nondisabled white women are generally included whenever philosophers wish to identify various underrepresented groups in the profession. Indeed, these women are generally given priority in any list that itemizes groups that are underrepresented in philosophy. I contend however that it may be time to reconsider this discursive and conceptual practice.

As I point out in a 2013 article, nondisabled white women are the most advantaged, or, to put it the other way, the least disadvantaged of any underrepresented group in philosophy. In Canada at present, women make up about 35% of full-time philosophy faculty. Almost all these women faculty are nondisabled (and white). Since disabled women in Canada make up about 25% [Shelley: this figure has been adjusted from the figure previously stated to reflect recent data] of the overall population of women and less than 1% of faculty in Canadian philosophy departments, it seems plausible to assert that nondisabled women (not only nondisabled men) are in fact overrepresented in philosophy departments in Canada.

The underrepresentation of disabled philosophers in the United States is grave. In Canada, the situation is even more dire. In the past fifteen years, the low percentage of disabled philosophers employed in Canadian philosophy departments has remained relatively constant.

In the late 1980s, nondisabled, white feminist philosophers within the Canadian Philosophical Association (CPA) pressed the leadership of the organization to develop strategies to remedy the pronounced gender inequality in Canadian philosophy departments at the time. Almost immediately, the CPA Equity Committee was formed in 1990 to address this issue. Indeed, the CPA Equity Committee’s initiatives in this regard have been very successful: many nondisabled white women philosophers, especially feminist philosophers, have a noticeable presence in Canadian philosophy.

Nevertheless, the situation for other underrepresented groups, including other groups of women, has remained relatively unchanged since the CPA Equity Committee was formed. Although the Committee is now mandated to consider the situation of various underrepresented groups in Canadian philosophy, the Committee‘s legacy remains relatively the same: almost all the philosophers hired in Canadian philosophy departments are nondisabled (white) women and men.

With a few exceptions, nondisabled feminist philosophers in Canada seem to be largely unconcerned about the dearth of disabled faculty in their departments and in Canadian philosophy more generally. At present, in fact, there is not a single disabled philosopher of disability employed full-time in a philosophy department in Canada. Given the centrality of bioethics to the curricula and infrastructure of some of the larger Canadian philosophy departments, the current state of affairs—the prevalence of a medicalized and individualized conception of disability virtually precludes critical philosophical work on disability—shields these departments from threats to their funding sources, as well as sustains their institutional and disciplinary identities as purveyors of cutting-edge scientific, bioethical, and biomedical philosophical research and knowledge.

Efforts to increase the diversity of Canadian philosophy departments currently revolve around temporary, individualistic solutions to the unexamined structural problems within Canadian philosophy: check your biases, advance epistemic justice, revise your syllabi, organize inclusive conferences. Although these strategies are arguably necessary for institutional demographic change in the profession in Canada, they are by no means sufficient to improve the situation for disabled philosophers here. Rather, significant structural and institutional changes are required, including changes to the ways that philosophical work on disability is conceptualized, how it is done, and how it is categorized, as well as how jobs in the area are classified, described, and advertised.

As I argue in Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, philosophy (including philosophy in Canada) requires a conceptual revolution with respect to disability. In short, the individualized and medicalized conception of disability that currently prevails in philosophy is, as I argue, inextricably intertwined with the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers and the marginalization of critical philosophical work on disability. I wish that philosophers in Canada and elsewhere would take notice.

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