Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Julie Maybee Redux

Julie Maybee will be the first presenter in Philosophy, Disability and Social Change, the outstanding, free, and open access conference that will take place December 9th-11th. The Dialogues on Disability interview with Maybee that appears below was originally posted on Discrimination and Disadvantage in July 2018. Julie Maybee’s latest book is entitled Making and Unmaking Disability: The Three-Body Approach.


Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the fortieth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I’m conducting with disabled philosophers and post here 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 Haudensaunee 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 Julie Maybee. Julie is Professor of Philosophy at Lehman College, CUNY, an adjunct professor in the Masters of Disability Studies program at CUNY’s School of Professional Studies, and Director of the Disability Studies Minor at Lehman. Her specialties include nineteenth-century Continental philosophy (especially Hegel), Africana philosophy, race and philosophy, and disability.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Julie! Julie, you began your university education as a journalism student. Please tell us about your background and the motivation to pursue an education and career in philosophy.

First, I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to participate in this interview series, Shelley, which I have very much enjoyed reading and am now thrilled to be part of.

I took my first philosophy course as an elective in my freshman year in the School of Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, loved it, and made philosophy my minor. In third year, I realized that I did not want to be a journalist. I thought about changing my major, but would have been required to take a lot of extra courses because the distribution requirements were so different in the School of Arts and Humanities. An advisor told me, however, that if I finished the journalism degree and wanted to do a second degree, the distribution requirements for the second degree would be waived. I also hammered out a deal with the chair of the Philosophy Department that would allow me to finish the philosophy major in only one additional year, if I loaded up a bit on credits.

While negotiating the fifth year with the Philosophy Department, I told a senior philosophy professor—who I thought had never really noticed me, even though I had done well in his courses—that I was thinking about doing another year to major in philosophy and he told me that I should apply to the Ph.D. program in philosophy at his alma mater, Cornell. It’s amazing what a difference one little comment can make. His brief comment helped me believe I was good enough to go to grad school. So, I applied to Cornell and went there to do my Ph.D. Pursuing a career as a philosophy professor essentially lets me continue to be a student for the rest of my life, as my father likes to tease me, which I think is a real privilege.

Please describe your recent and current research projects and teaching activity.

I have actually been on sabbatical this year, which has been lovely. Ordinarily, I teach a range of interdisciplinary and cross-listed courses: on Africana philosophy, race and ethnicity, philosophy of disability, and disability studies. As you know, I recently published an article on embodiment and disability in the special issue of Journal of Social Philosophy that you guest edited. I also recently completed a forthcoming article on African philosophy, disability, and the social conception of the self—or the idea that identities are defined, not by individuals on their own, but rather by societies and social contexts—and another forthcoming article on disability, oppression, and homelessness.

I’m currently working on a book manuscript that expands on the argument offered in the Journal of Social Philosophy article, as well as working on another book manuscript that examines the contribution that Hegel’s argument in the early parts of the Phenomenology can make to debates in Africana philosophy about whether the self is socially defined—self-consciousness or spirit is, Hegel said, echoing a traditional African proverb, “[the] I that is we, and the we that is I”. In this latter project, I also apply to the Phenomenology the strategy for diagraming the logic of Hegel’s argument that I developed in my book Picturing Hegel.

In your contribution to the special issue of Journal of Social Philosophy, you developed a way to undermine a criticism that is often directed at my arguments about the social constitution of impairment, namely, that the position denies the material reality of the impaired body. You argue (and I agree) that this criticism relies on a Westerncentric conception of the body that ignores how the body is understood in some African traditions. Please elaborate your argument.

We often assume that the Western understanding of the world—including of the body—is the only way to understand the world. But there are different ways of cutting up or defining the world. The fact that there are different ways calls into question our own taken-for-granted ways of cutting up and defining the world. Like you, Shelley, I do not deny that there is a material reality to the world. I am claiming only that what that reality is like—how it is defined or identified, what kinds of things we say there are in it and, indeed, whether there are any “things” in it at all, given the meaning of our term “thing”—is determined by social contexts, by socially-shared languages and learning. As African philosopher Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, as well as philosopher of science Norwood Russell Hanson suggested, languages do not produce what we perceive or think about, but they do form and organize what we perceive as the facts, or what we regard “as so.”  

Today’s concept of impairment is a highly abstract concept according to which an impairment is one of many (biological) conditions located in an individual’s body. Traditional cultures do not seem to have this abstract concept of impairment. The Maasai term that is often translated into English as “disabled”—where disabled here is a synonym for the word impaired—for instance, refers to a lizard that walks in an awkward way, and so is only a description of physical movement and does not include what we would think of as intellectual or psychological impairments. Even in Western societies, the concept of impairment has not been transhistorical. I think there is good evidence showing that, up until the early 1800’s in Europe, people did not have today’s, Western concept of impairment. Actually, it’s not clear to me what the point of our highly abstract concept of impairment is, outside of the social arrangements in many Western societies that, since the nineteenth century, have disadvantaged and excluded people “with impairments.” After all, neither the term impairment nor even terms such as cerebral palsy or autism, which we use to capture smaller categories of impairment, tell us much about what people can or cannot do.

Some traditional societies also do not regard the body as individual. The Suyá Indians of Brazil, who call themselves the Mekin Seji, for instance, believe that the body and body-parts are socially shared through the sharing of bodily substances—milk, blood, urine, sweat, spit, vaginal secretions, semen and so on. When Dombá, a Suyá/Mekin Seji man who anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes wrote about, received a kidney transplant and found that eating red peppers offended his new kidney, no one in his socially-shared, bodily-substance group was allowed to eat red peppers. Since substance-group members share bodies and body-parts, Dombá and other members of his substance-group believed that the consumption of red peppers by the other members would offend Dombá’s new kidney as well. The Suyá/Mekin Seji also do not seem to experience their bodies as individual.

Even the discipline of biology is just one way of cutting up and defining the world.

Philosopher of science Jesse Prinz has pointed out, for instance, that biology tells us that bad moral behavior can’t make one sick. But African philosopher Godwin S. Sogolo has argued that in traditional African cultures that do not make a sharp distinction between the natural and supernatural/spiritual, people believe that bad moral behavior can indeed make one sick. Moral violations or poor social relations with other people or with spirits can make someone ill by reducing the body’s ability to heal itself. As Sogolo notes, these views are not that different from the claim in Western societies that stress can make people ill, though traditional African societies focus on strained social relations rather than, say, overwork, as the source of stress.

Feminist scholar and sociologist Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí has suggested, furthermore, that traditional Yoruba culture did not have a concept of (biological) sex. Although the Yoruba obviously recognized that people had different roles in reproduction (obinrin, the ones who have babies and okùnrin, the ones who do not have babies), because children had no role in reproduction, children were neither obinrin nor okùnrin. Critics might say that this example shows only that the Yoruba did not recognize the fact that boys and girls do indeed have a biological sex. But this reply presupposes the central assumption of biology, namely the idea that, as Ladelle McWhorter has pointed out, living things should be classified in terms of function and development. Since most girls develop into women and most boys into men, biology regards girls as little women, and boys as little men. But even on our own terms there are ways in which girls are different from women, and boys different from men—one of those differences is that neither girls nor boys have any role in reproduction. So why not then say, as the Yoruba did, that no children are women or men? In other words, to say that there are biological sexes, impairments, or even individual bodies is just one way of cutting up and defining the world.

Julie, you had worked in philosophy of race and ethnicity for several years before you came to recognize the ways in which disability is as socially constructed as race and ethnicity. Describe the circumstances of this realization.

I am embarrassed to say that I had never thought about disability as a socially constructed category until it happened to my family. I had been working on issues in the study of race and ethnicity for twenty years when, in 2002, my daughter, Leyna, who was twelve at the time, had a brain aneurysm. While accompanying Leyna to cognitive rehab one day, I complained to the director that their program was culturally biased. The director, who knew that I am an academic, told me that there was a then-recent issue of American Psychologist, the official journal of the American Psychological Association (APA), that I should look up. 

It turned out that the APA journal had recently published a special-topics issue with several articles that addressed what the introductory article called a “new model” or “new paradigm” of disability, namely, the “social model” of disability, which, as you know, defines disability as a social category. Contributors to the issue included psychologists and disability studies scholars Rhoda Olkin and Carol J. Gill. I learned later, of course, that, by 2003, the social model wasn’t actually new—it had originally been developed beginning in the late 1970’s—and I have come to disagree in some ways with the classical versions of the model; but I saw at once the affinity between the notion of disability as a social category and the work that I had been doing for years on race and ethnicity.

Learning about the social model also helped me to process some of the anger that I was feeling after Leyna’s aneurysm—including anger directed at Leyna’s psychologist, who kept telling me that I needed to “stop being angry” and “accept” things. I think the language of “acceptance” can be oppressive, unless therapists help people sort out what they might try to accept from what they should not have to accept:

Didn’t I have a right to be angry about the fact that, before Leyna became disabled, school districts loved her, but, after she was disabled, we had to fight for school services? Didn’t I have a right to be angry about how we couldn’t get into some places with her wheelchair? Didn’t I have a right to be angry about how some young people at the local county fair laughed at her?

My first article on disability explored these issues, among others. I sent a draft of the article to the rehab psychologist who, to her credit, was gracious and thanked me for sharing it. About a year and a half after Leyna’s aneurysm, I was diagnosed with what we call celiac disease—gluten intolerance—which leads me to experience some exclusion of my own, not just the exclusion that I experience through Leyna. For instance, I have been required to attend numerous professional meetings planned around meals at which there was nothing for me to eat, forcing me to either go hungry for the duration or bring my own food, which makes me look rude or compels me to share personal information in ways that might be awkward or uncomfortable. Still, in most contexts, I pass as nondisabled.

What are some of the directions in which you would like work that combines Africana philosophy and philosophy of disability to develop?

Oh, there is so much work to be done here. In terms of work on race and ethnicity, the late, black, HIV-positive, and gay disability studies scholar Chris Bell rightly criticized disability studies for being what he called “white disability studies.” Disability studies scholars (most of whom have been white) have often drawn parallels between disability as a socially constructed category and race. White people who became disabled as adults discovered that, now that they were disabled, they were new members of a socially-despised group—just like black and Latino people, they must have thought to themselves. It’s an understandable analogy, but they forgot that many disabled people are black and Latino; indeed, in the U.S., there is a higher rate of disability among blacks than whites or Latinos.

Bell argued that many disability studies scholars have tended to treat disability as a monolithic category and to flatten the disability-is-like-race analogy, without taking seriously subtleties that people who think about race consider, such as the distinction between and interweaving of race and ethnicity, as well as intersectionality, liminality, or hybridity. Bell also chastised disability studies scholars for failing to read and consider how work by African Americans can illuminate experiences of disability, such as W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of double consciousnessRalph Ellison’s engagement with social invisibility, or the engagement by African American authors with disability itself, such as in Roots or in Alice Walker’s and other authors’ works. Furthermore, Bell criticized disability studies scholars for failing to consider multiracial identities and disability, as well as disability in non-majority-white countries (such as India). Since Bell’s article first appeared, some of this work has been done, including by Bell; but there is still much work to do.

On the other side, I think that scholarship on race and ethnicity could be enriched by engagement with the critical work on normalcy that disability studies scholars produce, where by “normalcy” here I am referring to both the concept of normalcy and the social system of dominance that benefits people who are regarded as normal and excludes those who are deemed not normal.

As I’ve done more research, I’ve also found that there are echoes in disability studies of some issues discussed in Africana philosophy, including the social conception of the self that I’ve mentioned; the rejection of the Western emphasis on independence in favor of an emphasis on interdependence; an emphasis on interdisciplinarity; and even echoes of transdisciplinarity, which has been defined as an attention to a multilayered reality; a rejection of a sharp logic of excluded middle (think of Hegel here); a rejection of a sharp distinction between subject and object (think Hegel again); and, in some strands, an interest in solving intractable and complex problems. I joke that I like to deceive myself into thinking that my somewhat eclectic interests fit together, but they really do!

The bottom line is that if you want to understand what we call “disability” and “impairment” (as well as a great many other things) as human phenomena, you have to listen to a lot of different humans, including people in Africa and the African diaspora, both present and past. Paying attention to Western history is also helpful, since it can reveal the ways in which current, Western concepts have been invented and constructed over time, as your own work suggests, Shelley. Trying to perceive the world through many other people’s, including past people’s, eyes, so to speak, and seeing how they organize(d) and construct(ed) their worlds can help to shake up the sense that our world is inevitable and to envision how to construct our world in better ways that don’t exclude people.

Julie, is there anything you would like to add before we end this interview? Are there articles, books, or other resources that you would like to recommend on any of the topics that we’ve discussed in this interview?

I worry that professional philosophers likely have not been paying enough attention to making our classes more inclusive and accessible. There is a lot of hand-wringing in the profession—for good reason—about how the discipline has trouble attracting students who are women, disabled, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups. I’ve been thinking a lot about using universal design for learning (UDL) strategies to attract a diversity of learners to philosophy, especially since I teach in a minority-serving institution that has a majority of students who are women.

One of the principles of UDL is that instructors should provide students with options in terms of how students engage with and sustain interest in the course, which includes employing culturally relevant materials, such as readings on the topics of disability, race, ethnicity, gender, and about other cultures, as well as readings by philosophers who are disabled, women, members of racial and ethnic minority groups and from other cultures. I know that there has been some effort in the profession to encourage and help instructors offer courses that are more culturally inclusive and accessible in this way, but even here more work is needed. Furthermore, we also need to work on providing materials for classes in multiple formats—providing readings in screen-readable formats, making sure all videos are closed-captioned, providing alternate text for images and so on. I have yet to tackle described video, but if we are serious about accessibility, we have to be careful about using images to convey knowledge without providing alternative ways of accessing that knowledge.

We also need to pay attention to inclusive practices in terms of teaching methods in the classroom. I had the opportunity to meet Eugenia Etkina, who runs the Physics Education program at Rutgers University and is a proponent of a teaching style for physics that seems to me to have the potential to be more inclusive than are many lecture or discussion courses.

Etkina’s approach, which she and her colleagues call the Investigative Science Learning Environment (ISLE), is built on a constructivist theory of education, according to which students acquire new knowledge by actively connecting it to already-existing knowledge, so that teachers must become, not the imparters of wisdom that students are expected to absorb, but rather facilitators in students’ self-driven learning processes. Constructivist approaches to teaching utilize strategies that involve active engagement, group work, and problem solving, and focus on connecting individual students’ beliefs with new materials. These are precisely the kinds of strategies that, according to disability studies scholars in education, construct a diversity of students as capable learners and foster inclusion.

Etkina’s approach promotes inclusion in other ways as well. Her approach involves creating what she calls a “mistake-rich environment” in the classroom, an environment in which students observe phenomena and, like physicists, propose explanations, even outlandish ones, that they subsequently test with experiments that they design. Even if a student gives the right answer to a question posed by the instructor, Etkina encourages instructors to ask the student “how do you know that?”—a technique that tells students that what’s important is to be able to explain how you know something, not simply whether you get it right.

Etkina’s approach also encourages students to use a variety of intellectual tools—tables, graphs, charts and diagrams, for instance—to work out their ideas. Students then read the textbook only after developing their ideas in class. I think that encouraging students to make mistakes and employ a variety of tools and skills helps to create a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for students with a variety of skills, abilities, and preferences, thus providing students who have different strengths, abilities, and interests with opportunities to advance knowledge in the classroom.

In addition, Etkina encourages teachers to develop several habits, including refusing to regard physics as a special subject-matter available only to the elite few and treating all students as capable of learning and generating knowledge about physics. Most people are in fact amateur physicists, and physics teachers often complain about the misconceptions with respect to physics, based on everyday experiences, that students bring to the classroom.

Physics and philosophy are different disciplines, but there are some similarities between them. Just as physics involves experimentation in the physical world, philosophy involves a kind of experimentation in thought—philosophers should be versucher, as Nietzsche said, attemptors, or a kind of searcher. Philosophy is also like physics, I think, in the sense that students bring a lot of beliefs about the subject-matter to the classroom. Just as all students have some experience with physics—they know that things fall, that things that go faster if hit harder, and so on—so students have some experience with philosophy—they have some sense of what knowledge is, of what right and wrong are, and so on. Students bring what we can think of as a naïve physics or naïve philosophy to the classroom. They therefore have a lot of already-existing knowledge that instructors can build on to construct philosophy in the class, just as they have a lot of beliefs about physical phenomena that instructors can use to construct physics knowledge in the class. I have been thinking recently about how I might be able to use constructivist approaches to create more inclusive and accessible classes that will attract more students with a variety of skills, abilities, and interests to the subjects that I teach.

Julie, thank you very much for these informative and thoughttul remarks about teaching, as well as your fascinating earlier critical remarks about the Eurocentrism of current ideas about the body and materiality that circulate in the fields of philosophy of disability and disability studies, as well as in the discipline of academic philosophy more generally.

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


Please join me here again on Wednesday, January 20th at 8 a.m. EST for the sixty-eighth 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. The entire Dialogues on Disability series is archived on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPY here.

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