Philosophy of Disability: Present and Future, No. 2

In my previous post in this series of posts, I explained that one of my aims in the Pacific APA symposium on Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability was to distinguish the argumentative claims of the book and its overall approach from other extant philosophy of disability. I wanted to do so in order to address persistent constraints on both the scope of philosophy of disability and its potential to articulate the ways that the apparatus of disability is co-constitutive with other apparatuses of power. Recall that in one paragraph of the reply, I therefore stated the following:

Insofar as philosophers of disability, most of whom are white, have focused their attention almost exclusively on conceptual questions, theoretical approaches, and a normative agenda that their predominantly nondisabled and white mainstream philosophy interlocutors have essentially determined and, moreover, inasmuch as philosophers of disability have primarily confined their normative analyses to the debate between justice and care that these interlocutors initiated in the first place, examination of the metaphysical and epistemological status of disability has been neglected; naturalization of disability in philosophy has expanded in new directions; the historical emergence of disability and its contingency have remained obscured; the constitutive forms of power that Foucault identified have been disregarded; denial persists about how certain ontological and ethical commitments condition accessibility to the profession; and the ways that disability is intertwined with other apparatuses of power, including settler colonialism, white supremacy, class, and environmental racism have been almost entirely ignored.

The claims of the excerpted paragraph were intended to put in stark relief how the inclusion of mainstream philosophical analyses of disability under the rubric of philosophy of disability has constrained the radical potential of the latter area of inquiry. In large part, these mainstream analyses of disability (including mainstream feminist analyses of disability) have served to reinstate conventional relations of power with respect to disability.   

As my book repeatedly aims to show, and as the cited paragraph of my APA reply indicates, the discursive practices that philosophers use to represent disability, the contexts in which various forms of representation take place, and the assumptions that underlie the rationale offered for why and how representation takes place as such, are fundamental mechanisms of the apparatus of disability itself, materializing the social categories of both impairment and disability, elaborating their parameters, specifying their delineation, and so on. In short, the claims of the paragraph identify mutually constitutive and mutually supporting elements of the apparatus of disability.

As I noted in my previous post of “Philosophy of Disability: Present and Future,” assumptions about what philosophers think exists are already political, ontological assumptions are co-constitutive with practices, and practices constitute identities, subjectivities, methodologies, and epistemologies which, hence, are themselves political. In this entry of the series, I will thus address the following claim of the paragraph:

“denial persists about how certain ontological and ethical commitments condition accessibility to the profession.”

My claim is, in other words, that philosophers continue to deny that a certain ontology of disability and certain ideas about the ethical treatment of disabled people derived from that ontology have determined and continue to determine how, when, where, the extent to which, and even whether, philosophical contexts and venues are constructed in ways that assume the existence and presence of disabled philosophers, who they are, what they do, and so on and so forth. This claim should seem straightforward given what we know about relations of power, how inequalities are engendered, and how dominant epistemic communities reproduce themselves.

To illustrate how certain ontological and ethical commitments shape access to the profession, I want to refer to a section of the 23-page Guide to Best Practices in Establishing and Running Summer Diversity Institutes that the APA dropped last week.

The section of the document to which I especially want to refer is the 7-sentence paragraph that appears under the subtitle “Disability Accommodation,” a section that can be found in the brief part of the guide entitled “Accessibility and Preparedness.” The paragraph reads as follows:

It is crucial for institute organizers to think carefully about how to offer accommodations for participants with different abilities, be they faculty, graduate assistants, or undergraduate students. The institute leadership will need to ensure that all seminar rooms, lounges, lecture rooms, restaurants, and outing destinations are accessible. The institute leadership will need to make sure that moving around the campus is feasible for people with disabilities—and this requires more than just checking that the campus facilities meet ADA requirements. If a guest speaker, graduate assistant, or student uses a wheelchair or scooter, it is advisable that organizers traverse and inspect pathways for accessibility. If a participant requires specific accommodations, those in charge of the institute need to make sure that these needs are met for all activities, formal and informal. Materials needed for the seminar—readings, visuals, etc.—should all be accessible. If there are medical accommodations that need to be set up, these should all be taken care of in advance of the start of the summer program.

I want first to note the considerable brevity of the section, its repetitiveness, and the scarce substantive information that it offers prospective institute organizers about what is actually required for disabled students and faculty to participate in their events on par with nondisabled students and faculty. I want to note, furthermore, that the brevity and repetition of the section, as well as the marginal positioning of this section in the more comprehensive document combine to suggest that the sparse information that the section provides was added as an afterthought and to indicate that the ways in which the apparatus of disability shapes philosophical contexts receive little attention in the overall “diversity institute” framework in philosophy.

Why doesn’t consideration of disability run throughout the guide? Take, for instance, the sections on funding. That organizers of events have insufficient funds to make their events accessible to disabled philosophers is routinely used as a rationale and justification for the exclusion of us from institutional and professional spaces, venues, and events. Thus, it would seem imperative to advise (prospective) institute organizers that accessibility must be accounted for from the outset of planning, in negotiations with funders, in the very conceptualization and configuration of the given institute itself, including in decisions about the number of participants that can be funded, the housing arrangements that can be offered, the sort of meals that institutes can afford to provide, and so on. While the guide acknowledges that “the number of admitted students is often limited by the funding available for housing, food, transportation, and stipends,” the guide makes no mention of the need to include attention to accessibility in these deliberations. To take another example of where attention to disability is notably absent, the “Critical Elements” section of the guide would be improved if each of the bullet points that it comprises were to include explicit instructions of how these various elements should be made available to disabled people, how they must be modified to incorporate disabled people, and so on.

The underrepresentation of disabled philosophy faculty across the various institutes over the years bolsters the perception that diversity institutes are not designed with the aspirations and interests of disabled students and faculty in mind, at least not first and foremost. The perception seems to get even more support from the omission of any mention of disability from the PIKSI application materials described on p. 15 of the guide.

By more closely examining the brief section on “Disability Accommodation,” we can derive additional lessons about how ontological and ethical commitments with respect to disability have conditioned (and continue to condition) accessibility to the profession.

Notice that the titles of the part “Accessibility and Preparedness” and of the section “Disability Accommodation” play on the common conflation of two different approaches to the involvement of disabled people: namely, accommodation and accessibility. Although the section uses both terms, it fails to respectively explain them nor what their respective use instructs prospective institute organizers to actually do. It is, however, important to recognize that these approaches to institutional practice comprise different ontological and ethical assumptions.

In my introduction to a special issue on feminist philosophy of disability, I explained the important differences in practice that these approaches entail. Readers and listeners who want the full story of the distinction and its constitutive and practical implications should check out the introduction to the issue or the relevant parts of Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. In brief, an accommodationist approach to inclusion of disabled people assumes that disability is a characteristic, difference, property of a given individual (“a person with a disability”) for whom a specific context should be reconfigured, while an approach that assumes that the built world (including the discursive world) must be accessible construes (the apparatus of) disability as a dynamic socially and contingently constituted phenomenon, a product of human invention and convention.  While the former approach naturalizes disability (and ability), the latter approach denaturalizes it.

The section’s reference to people with disabilities, a term that (for some of the reasons I’ve mentioned) is increasingly eschewed by disabled people internationally, reinforces the naturalization of the apparatus of disability within the profession. In other words, the guide suggests that its nondisabled authors have either not attended to the manner in which a growing number of members of this constituency identify themselves and each other or have judged themselves to be the “best” arbiters on debates within disability studies and amongst communities of the relevant constituency.

Indeed, the language used in the guide to refer to disabled people (“individuals with disabilities”; “people with disabilities”) implicitly instructs prospective institute organizers to assume an accommodationist approach to disability and to convey such an approach to disabled students and faculty involved in (or potentially involved in) their institutes, including in seminar discussions of given institutes, choice of reading materials, decisions about who is a worthy faculty participant, and so on.

Thus, I want to ask these questions: What messages does the assumption of an accommodationist approach send to disabled students and faculty about their current and future entitlements within the profession? What does the assumption of such an approach convey to disabled students (and faculty) about the sources of their professional, social, and political exclusion? And what does such an approach convey to them about the potential of philosophy (of disability) to transform their current underrepresentation within the profession and their social subordination more generally?

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