The Unbearable Confidence of the Racialized Apparatus of Disability

“First and foremost, I aim to issue a caution . . . When addressing and identifying forms of epistemic oppression one needs to endeavor not to perpetuate epistemic oppression.”

– Kristie Dotson (2012, 24)

Several months ago, the moderator of the Teaching Disability Studies Facebook group, a group that had operated for several years, announced that the group would be suspended while the moderator and several close associates discussed the aims of the group and the direction in which it should go forward (if at all). In the weeks and months that led up to the announcement, many members of the 7000+-member group had increasingly expressed frustration about the content of the posts shared within the group, as well as which perspectives, member contributions, and issues received the most uptake within the group and, alternatively, which perspectives, contributions, and topics were effectively marginalized or overpowered.

Many long-term disabled members perceived these problems within group: nondisabled academics took up too much discursive space within the group, asking rudimentary questions about disability and disability studies that could be readily addressed through relatively straightforward web searches; Black disabled scholars and activists and disabled activists and scholars of colour were sidelined within the group, their concerns and perspectives not given the uptake that they deserve; and furthermore that the overall focus and direction of the group revolved around Westerncentric concerns, methodologies, and metaphysics. With their announcement, the moderator and associates wanted to put the group on hold in order to decide whether the group could find workable solutions to these problems or whether we should dissolve the group altogether.

About a year before these events culminated, another Facebook group, Teaching and Learning Critical Disability Studies, emerged. The newer group has burgeoned over the past few months, in part because of the closure of the earlier group. At this point, it is probably too soon to say whether the problems and power relations that brought about the demise of Teaching Disability Studies will jeopardize the newer group. Already, however, the moderators of the new group have improved upon the operations of the earlier group in a number of ways, one of which is the strict implementation of the requirement that every post in the group that includes images of any kind be accompanied with a textual description of these images.

The problems that led to the demise of the Teaching Disability Studies group—racism, white supremacy, ableism, paternalism, and Westerncentrism, most prominently—are endemic to critical philosophical work on disability. Indeed, these problems contributed to the shape of The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Disability, about which I recently posted, and have evidently conditioned the formulation of the recently announced The Journal of Philosophy of Disability: the “founder” of the forthcoming journal is nondisabled; many of the members of the editorial board are nondisabled; almost all the editorial board members are white; and all of them, except one, are situated in the United States. Is this configuration of a publication of philosophical work on disability likely to unravel the ableist Eurocentrism of critical disability studies, philosophical work on disability, and academia more generally? Significantly, none of the nondisabled members of the editorial team has disabled philosophers of disability as colleagues in their departments. Furthermore, some of them continue to exclude disabled philosophers from their own edited collections and other work in philosophy, including in public philosophy.

I think nondisabled feminist and other philosophers still do not adequately appreciate why disabled people feel so passionately that nondisabled people should not control our destinies, including what is written about us, how it is written, and why it is written. If nondisabled feminist and other nondisabled philosophers took seriously what disabled people say, write, do, and organize for and against, they would more likely understand that this sort of overbearing and self-possessed subordination of disabled people by nondisabled people establishes the latter group as beneficiaries of the apparatus of disability that constructed them as nondisabled and thus privileged in the first place, ensuring that they benefit from (among other things) professional and social opportunities, recognition, and acknowledgment that disabled people generally do not enjoy.

Note that this unequal social valuation isn’t at bottom about natural differences, personal interests, and individual strengths. Rather this asymmetry is a structural and institutionalized relation of power that continues to contribute to the exclusion of disabled philosophers (and disabled philosophers of disability especially) from the discipline and profession of philosophy and from academia more broadly. I can only speculate about why the disabled philosophers who comprise some of the editorial board embraced this kind of narrow professionalism rather than remain tethered to the political commitments about disability, ableism, racism, and other apparatuses that they have established elsewhere. I do however know why I was not asked to face that predicament.

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