Question: What do Licia Carlson, Andy Clark, Leslie Francis, Sara Goering, Chris Kaposy, Serene Khader, Eva Kittay, Will Kymlicka, Monique Lanoix, Joel Reynolds, Cynthia Stark, and Jonathan Wolff have in common?
Answer: All of them are nondisabled philosophers whose careers have been advanced with publications on disability. None of them has a disabled philosopher of disability as a colleague in their respective department; that is, none of them has ensured that their department hires a disabled philosopher of disability, though each of them has benefited from our pathbreaking work and the revolutionary work of disabled theorists, researchers, and activists more generally, some of them benefiting from our efforts for more than two decades.
Last week, two events occurred that are emblematic of the repeated structural gaslighting of disabled philosophers in which nondisabled philosophers engage and the continued exclusion of disabled philosophers of disability from the profession that almost all philosophers tacitly enforce and reward. One of these events took place in comments on the Daily Nous blog, involving philosophers who seem largely uninformed about ableism in philosophy and indeed uneducated about how power operates in the profession and society more broadly. The other event was the consequence of an event that I have written about before, namely, the recruitment for a position in Bioethics and Disability Studies in the philosophy department at Georgetown.
In the first case, the philosophers in question depoliticized and individualized a politically saturated situation, namely, the unacknowledged use of the insights of disabled philosophers of disability by nondisabled philosophers, appealing to dismissive remarks about political correctness and unexamined views about personal intentions in order to do so. In the second case, the position was awarded to a nondisabled philosopher even though numerous disabled philosophers of disability applied for the job, many of whom have much more knowledge about and experience of ableism and disability than the nondisabled philosopher who got hired.
Both events became part of the public discourse that circulated in philosophy on social media last week. Yet no nondisabled philosopher came forward to challenge the events and draw attention to the ways in which they reinforced the asymmetries of power that currently condition relations between disabled and nondisabled philosophers. No session at the APA was disrupted by protest of these events. No Twitter or Facebook feed erupted in dissent over these events, except my own. And no nondisabled philosopher seems to have lost any sleep over them. Ableism in philosophy and the resounding indifference to it continue to ruin the professional aspirations and potential accomplishments and contributions of disabled philosophers.
Indeed, my disabled philosopher colleagues and I feel betrayed once again: betrayed by the nondisabled feminist philosophers who persistently ignore what incorporating disability into ideas about intersectionality, allyship, and solidarity actually means in practice; betrayed by the nondisabled philosopher who feels entitled to step over disabled philosophers and by the nondisabled philosophers who have enabled him to do so; and betrayed by the philosophical community that continues to exploit and distort disabled people’s experiences and wisdom while denying us the authority and professional acknowledgement of that knowledge.
As I have pointed out in numerous contexts, disabled philosophers constitute approximately 1% of full-time philosophy faculty in Canada. In the U.S., the situation is not much better. In the U.S., furthermore, only a fraction of employed disabled philosophers work on disability. In Canada, there is at present no disabled philosopher of disability employed on a full-time basis in a philosophy department. In other words, there are at present many more nondisabled philosophers teaching and writing about disability and disabled people than there are disabled philosophers teaching and writing about disability and disabled people (and I’m not even accounting for the thousands of bioethicists whose work we aim to subvert). This grievous state of affairs hasn’t changed in about 20 years in large part because nondisabled philosophers haven’t changed. Nondisabled philosophers haven’t changed because they perceive no need to do so.
This post calls for a groundswell of insurrection against the ableism in philosophy that continues to subordinate disabled philosophers, especially disabled philosophers of disability. Such an insurrection requires a coordinated and thoroughgoing examination of how ableism and ableist privilege condition a range of institutional, social, professional, economic, ethical, and political practices, policies, and structures across the discipline and profession.
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Have all of these philosphers you characterize as non-disabled explicitly said they are not disabled? Or have they merely not said they are disabled? I ask because as you well know, there are disabilities not visible to outside observers. Is it necessary for philosophers working on disability to explicitly identify themselves as disabled? And if one of these philosophers you name were to turn out to be disabled, but to have kept this information private, would that change your assessment of the case?
These are genuine questions which I think are relevant to issues such as standpoint epistemology and testimonial injustice and I’m curious what your view is.
None of these philosophers has publicly identified as disabled. Some of these philosophers have explicitly publicly identified as nondisabled or have, through claims made in their work, implied that they are nondisabled. I have explicitly asked some of these philosophers whether they are disabled or nondisabled or have indirectly asked them by asking if there are disabled philosophers in their respective departments.
I regard disability as an apparatus of power rather than a property or characteristic of individuals, a human difference, etc. I think that distinctions such as visible and invisible, physical versus cognitive/mental, severe versus mild, and so on, which are commonly used to talk about “disabilities,” are strategic mechanisms of the apparatus of disability that depoliticize and naturalize it.
I regard “disabled” as a social and political position and identity that is both assigned and self-ascribed on the basis of constructed perceptions of and understandings about a range of phenomena that depart from constructed norms and expectations. These constructed perceptions and understandings of abnormality, deficiency, defect, etc. are products of social power relations that have detrimental effects and consequences for the lives, subjectivities, and possibilities of certain people. Thus, people who are not constructed in these ways are privileged in relevant respects, including people who do not “disclose” that these perceptions and understandings impinge on their lives in some way.
I think that all philosophers who produce critical philosophical work on disability should be frank about the fact that they are disabled (or nondisabled). I also think that even disabled philosophers who do not work on disability should be frank about their social and political positioning. Given the current asymmetrical state of affairs in the profession and discipline, that is, given the almost complete exclusion of disabled people from philosophy, disabled philosophers who “pass” as nondisabled display a lack of solidarity with other disabled philosophers who do not and cannot “pass.”
Thanks for clarifying. Does this analysis extend beyond disability to race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic position, and so on? That is, is there an obligation (moral or otherwise) for any philosopher working on such issues to disclose? Or is there something unique about disability?
I’ll be honest that I find the implications of your view troubling, especially if it extends broadly.
I recognize that people in a variety of disprivileged social positions may feel compelled to pass as people who are privileged relative to the respective social positions for various reasons, including job security, personal safety, etc. I think this state of affairs is unacceptable and must be changed.
I think that the motivation for this post is undermined if I continue to respond to comments that are submitted under a pseudonym or anonymously. Henceforth, therefore, I will post to the blog and engage with signed comments only.
[…] on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, some discussion ensued in comments about disabled philosophers passing as nondisabled in order to receive the benefits that accrue to […]