Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Adam Cureton

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the fiftieth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

I acknowledge that the land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and in the spirit of reconciliation.

My guest today is Adam Cureton. Adam is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, who did his graduate work at Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar, and at UNC-Chapel Hill. He works primarily in ethical theory, Kant, and philosophy of disability, and is currently writing a book, tentatively titled Interpreting Human Dignity, that incorporates themes from these three areas. In addition to editing various collections on disability—including the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Disability and the recently published Disability in Practice: Attitudes, Policies and Relationships—Adam serves in various leadership roles with respect to disability, including as President of the Society for Philosophy and Disability and as Chairperson of the APA Task Force on the Status of Disabled Philosophers in the Profession. In his spare time, Adam enjoys whitewater rafting, rock climbing, computer programming, listening to audiobooks (especially history), and spending time with his family.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Adam! Please tell us about your background, what led you to study philosophy, and why you ultimately became a philosophy professor.

Hi Shelley, thanks for having me! I’ve very much enjoyed reading this series and learning about the many interesting people that you’ve interviewed; so, I am honored to participate. 

I’m somewhat abashed to admit that I don’t know, in any deep sense, what led me to philosophy or why I chose to pursue a career as a philosopher. Aspects of my early life and people who I have known surely helped to form and shape my values, ideals, commitments and abilities in ways that made philosophy a natural course for me.

I grew up in a close-knit military family that was full of laughter, fun, and love. I was always fascinated by the many kinds of people whom we met through our regular travels and I enjoyed reflecting on how I would reinvent myself at the next place to which we moved. I was also ambitious, especially at school, where I loved studying history, poetry, biology, and math, although, with the latter, I was more like Bart Simpson when he forgets how to divide but claims to know “of division.” I was fortunate to take a high-school course on intellectual history in which I was assigned a book report on Rousseau’s The Social Contract, which blew me away. From then on, I read as much political philosophy as I could.

However, it wasn’t until I took a course on Rawls’s A Theory of Justice that I caught my first real glimpse of the value and power of philosophy. Alex Kaufman, Clark Wolf, and Alex Rosenberg fostered my youthful exuberance during this period of discovery, which continued at Oxford with John Broome and Joseph Raz and at UNC with Susan Wolf, Geoff Sayre-McCord, and Tom Hill. Tom, especially, taught me the importance of systematic thinking, of having a life’s project, of mutually supportive philosophical inquiry, of humility, and of the need to keep one eye “firmly on the ground” when doing abstract moral theory. He showed me, in both word and deed, that a career as a professional philosopher can be a way to fight the world’s fight.  

An additional factor that likely influenced me, in ways that I don’t fully understand, is my visual impairment. I have been legally blind since birth as a result of a condition called ocular albinism. My parents were always extremely supportive; but I also faced challenges of various kinds due to my poor vision. Perhaps these obstacles helped me to cultivate skills that are useful to philosophers, such as ingenuity, fortitude, careful listening, and memory, as well as encouraged my interest in rules and social institutions, especially the importance of exceptions to rules, the dangers of being too rigid in their application, and the need to refrain sometimes from exercising our legitimate entitlements. My disability also exposed me to barriers that many disabled people and others face and, so, likely encouraged in me a deep concern for justice, respect, and human dignity.

Adam, you told me that when you were growing up you were acutely aware of the social stigma that accompanies recognition that one is disabled, leading you to pass as nondisabled. Philosophers of disability, LGBTQ philosophers, and feminist philosophers (which, of course, are not mutually exclusive groups) have begun to explore the conceptual and political issues that surround passing as nondisabled, straight, cisgender, and so on. How have your experiences of passing as nondisabled conditioned your understanding of, and practices with respect to, disability?

I was indeed aware, from a very early age, of the social stigma that comes with being recognized as disabled. I was also somewhat embarrassed by my disability and wanted to be socially accepted by my peers and others. So, strange as it may sound, I decided early on that the best strategy for me was to try to hide my visual impairment and pass as nondisabled. I got very good at doing so, in part by paying close attention to differences between how disabled and nondisabled people typically behave and between how they are typically regarded and treated. I eventually came to recognize that hiding my disability was immature, irrational, and perhaps disrespectful to myself and others. However, these experiences probably encouraged my interest in studying the kinds of informal social attitudes that we have and should have towards one another and ourselves. 

I have written a few articles, for example, on how to have and show proper respect to people with disabilities, including one called “Offensive Beneficence,” which arose from paradoxical attitudes of insult and offense that I have had when good and well-meaning people have attempted to help me on account of my visual impairment. I also wrote a loosely autobiographical paper called “Hiding a Disability and Passing as Non-Disabled,” in which I suggest that we can gain some insight into the nature of disability by thinking about why a disabled person might want to pass as nondisabled, even when doing so requires forgoing certain hard-won accommodations and protections. Despite significant legal advances for people with disabilities, the informal social costs and challenges that disabled people face are especially vivid to me because I know what it is like not to be regarded as disabled.

[Description of photo below: Adam, the consummate traveller, is standing between two buildings in Salzberg, Austria, and looking into the camera. He is wearing a ski jacket, denim jeans, and a large shoulder bag with a long strap, is holding a take-out coffee cup in his left hand, and his right fist is closed around the strap of the bag. An arched doorway between the buildings can be seen in the background of the shot. Beyond the open iron gate of the doorway, grass, trees, several people, and a walkway can be seen.]

Your current research involves abstract and practical concerns with respect to human dignity, and in particular, human dignity and disabled people, what it requires, what it makes possible, and so on. Please describe this research and your motivation to do it.

I have long been inspired by Immanuel Kant’s conception of human dignity, which he describes as an “unconditional” and “absolute” worth or status that is “above all price,” “without equivalent,” “incomparable,” and equally shared among all human beings.  Kant’s conception of human dignity has been enormously influential; but it has also been disparaged as vague, abstract, or even useless, which has led to significant disagreement among moral philosophers and Kant scholars about how to understand and apply the idea of human dignity to actual circumstances, especially in tragic situations in which the dignity of two or more people comes in apparent conflict.

My current project is to bring together my previous work in normative ethical theory, Kant scholarship, and philosophy of disability to develop and defend a new kind of broadly Kantian moral framework that systematically interprets the notion of human dignity and progressively applies that basic value to actual circumstances. 

My approach to this project draws on how I understand the methods and limits of normative ethical theory. Our intuitions about moral questions that we face in everyday life often conflict with one another and are sometimes based in ignorance, self-serving biases, and cultural norms that we uncritically accept. In normative ethical theory, we attempt to filter and refine these initial reactions through critical reflection and to construct theories that attempt to unify the resulting considered judgments into a coherent structure that, we hope, will provide a deeper, critical understanding of our shared moral beliefs and practices. Studying and learning from other moral frameworks, including historical ones such as Kant’s, is an important tool in this complicated and ongoing process.

My aim, then, is to continue working “from both ends” by examining the abstract idea of human dignity, while also exploring practical issues about how to respect the dignity of particular types of persons, including people with disabilities.

[Description of photo below: Adam, who is smiling widely and looking directly into the camera lens, sits in a classroom for a session of the Philosophy of Disability conference that he organized in 2017. Other conference delegates can be seen in the background of the frame, including one delegate using a laptop.]

Adam, you are active on a number of committees and task forces whose aim is to advance the professional and political interests of disabled philosophers, as well as involved in a number of committees and groups on your own campus. Please tell us about the roles in which you serve and the goals that you have for at least some of these committees, task forces, and other groups.

The main theme of my service work has been to promote inclusiveness and support for people with disabilities. I helped to found the Society for Philosophy and Disability, which is dedicated to furthering research and teaching on philosophical issues that relate to disability and to promoting inclusiveness for people with disabilities in philosophical education and in philosophy more generally. As the President of the society, I aim to provide a forum for philosophical discussion of disability by arranging meetings, maintaining an online presence, and organizing academic projects. 

I also serve on the APA Committee on Inclusiveness in the Professions, the APA Diversity Task Force, and the APA Task Force on the Status of Disabled Philosophers in the Profession, the latter of which I chair. The aim of the latter Task Force is to consider the establishment of a permanent APA disability committee and to investigate the kinds of challenges, barriers, and obstacles that disabled people face in all areas of professional philosophy. We recently conducted a qualitative survey, which has provided a treasure-trove of data that, I hope, will lead to needed improvements in our profession.

At my university, I have served for several years on the Chancellor’s Commission for Diversity and Inclusion, where I regularly highlight issues of disability that are essential for maintaining a diverse and inclusive university environment. In addition, I previously served on a University Disability Task Force as the chair of a sub-committee tasked with evaluation of the university’s accommodations practices for students and employees. Currently, I am also the faculty advisor for two student disability groups.

Although disabled people make up about 22-25 percent of the general population in North America, disabled philosophers constitute only about 2-4 percent of full-time philosophy faculty in the U.S. and only about 1-2 percent of full-time faculty in Canada. Given your involvement in a variety of aspects of both the discipline and profession, Adam, what would you say are the most important changes and shifts that must be made in order to increase the representation of disabled philosophers in the profession and elevate our status? And how can these changes and shifts be best accomplished?

Although a significant part of my research is devoted to thinking about the kinds of informal attitudes that we should have toward ourselves and one another, I am not sure how to go about replacing or reforming the disrespectful and biased attitudes towards disabled people that tend to diminish our status in various areas of life. In the meantime, there are concrete changes that we should make in philosophy. One area that I have focused on is how conferences are organized. I recently posted, for example, a “how-to” guide for using QR codes on handouts and PowerPoints so that conference participants can easily access electronic versions of conference materials. Conference travel expenses are another significant issue for many disabled people, as is communication with other participants during breaks and dinners at conferences.  When I find myself getting discouraged and dispirited by the many challenges that disabled philosophers and other disabled academics face, I tend to reach for these kinds of low-hanging fruit, in the hope that perhaps a more inclusive environment will foster more inclusivity in general.

I hope that conference organizers will make note of your last remarks about obstacles to conference participation that disabled philosophers encounter. Thanks very much for drawing attention to them, Adam. Would you like to say anything else about something that we’ve discussed in the course of this interview, recommend articles or books or videos on any of these topics, or mention something that we didn’t discuss?

Perhaps some readers might be interested in a TEDx talk that I gave on some of the issues we’ve discussed. Here’s a challenge that I will pose to readers and listeners of this interview: Try to spot the point at which I lost my train of thought. 

[Description of photo below: A smiling Adam stands at the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. His arms are folded across his chest. Light is filtering into the archway from small rectangular windows in the background of the shot. A large triangular structure behind Adam indicates the height of the archway at that location. Someone on the right of the frame seems to be looking at the other side of the structure.]

Otherwise, I suppose I’ll close by expressing my growing hope that philosophy will continue to be more and more welcoming and supportive of people with disabilities. Philosophy of disability continues to grow as a respected philosophical field; conferences are becoming more accessible; there is growing interest in identifying and solving challenges that disabled philosophers face; philosophy courses are becoming more inclusive; and disabled philosophers are being highlighted in forums such as this one. Many challenges remain, but my sense is that our profession is moving in the right direction.

Adam, thank you very much for your participation in Dialogues on Disability. Your interview makes a valuable contribution to the series.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Adam Cureton’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.

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Please join me here again on Wednesday, June 19th, at 8 a.m. EST, for the fifty-first installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at s.tremain@yahoo.ca. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.

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