Ableism and the Epistemic Supremacy of Nondisabled Philosophers

Whether on the street or in the mall, the first lessons about disabled people that (nondisabled) parents and other (nondisabled) adults generally convey to children are in some respects prohibitive, usually imparted in hushed tones: don’t stare at that handicapped person; don’t look at her like that; it’s not polite to stare; just act like she’s not there; she can’t help the way she is, so don’t be rude. These prohibitions are of course variously betrayed by the intrusive interactions and voyeurism with which disabled people must repeatedly contend on the street, in the mall, and in the philosophy classroom.

Nevertheless, consider the initial reaction that you had to the remarks of the previous paragraph. You might have been inclined to feel quaintly nostalgic about such tutelage and its charm. But doing so would overlook the constitutive power relations that enable these discursive practices, sustaining and extending the social asymmetries that they performatively re-entrench.

As Foucault, Fanon, Bartky, and others have variously pointed out, the gaze has long been invested with subjectifying power and status, that is, both the enactment of the gaze and the withholding of the gaze affirm and reinforce the power and privilege of the gazer vis-à-vis the gazed at.

We can use these teachings about the force relations that constitute and provide the potent impetus for “the gaze” to reexamine the childhood lessons that adults convey about (the apparatus of) disability and disabled people. Indeed, what seemed polite and well-meaning can be identified as not so innocent, not so kind, but rather as exemplifying belligerent benevolence, pernicious paternalism, egregious etiquette.

It is important to remember that these insights about “the gaze” should be understood more comprehensively than the term itself suggests, that is, the dynamics of power that Foucault and others wished to capture with the term exceed the ocular dimensions to which the term seems confined. When we understand the gaze of nondisabled people in this way, a whole field of social relations becomes discernible.

When parents and other adults instruct children not to look at disabled people, they impart to these children lessons about the power asymmetry between nondisabled people and disabled people, lessons about power in which these children are expected to actively participate and reproduce throughout their lives, even bequeath  to the next generation. Ultimately, these childhood teachings are about the allegedly natural character of this asymmetry and its inevitability.

I want to suggest therefore that amidst the childhood instruction that adults convey with their messages about the propriety of ignoring disabled people is this lesson: social recognition of disabled people and the social benefits and advantages that such acknowledgment would comprise is the prerogative of nondisabled people and should remain at their discretion, distributed according to their lights.

In other words, nondisabled people (and those who pass or have passed as such) should adjudicate when to acknowledge disabled people, which disabled people to acknowledge, the extent to which disabled people should be acknowledged, and why. Nondisabled people know best what can be known, including what can be known about disability, what is important to know about disability, who can know it, and how it should be known.

Given the ubiquity of this self-appointed omniscience on the part of nondisabled people, I am never surprised when nondisabled philosophers refuse to acknowledge the aptness of my interventions into discussions that circulate in the profession or for that matter my epistemic authority about (the apparatus of) disability more generally.

Was my email acknowledged in which I told the editors of that feminist philosophy journal that a certain article in a recent issue is ableist and pathologizing, offering a crude familiarity with critical work on disability? No, not at all.

Did any of the more than two dozen feminist and other philosophers who signed the letter on the APA Blog acknowledge my criticisms of the letter’s ableism and recant it in any way? Well, maybe one or two of them.

Has the APA ever publicly acknowledged the legitimacy of the criticisms that I have for years made of its practices with respect to (in)accessibility and disabled philosophers? No, never, not even when the organization has subsequently acted upon my recommendations.

Notice that this persistent refusal to afford a particular disabled philosopher professional and institutional recognition for her expertise is no mere personal insult (though it is certainly that too), but rather a necessary element of the epistemic  injustice that nondisabled philosophers must continuously enact in order to reconsolidate and sustain their own artifactual epistemic authority in philosophy and the artifactual authority of nondisabled people over the lives of disabled people in society more broadly.

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