Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Laura Cupples

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the sixty-ninth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY 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.

The land on which I sit to conduct these interviews is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. I offer these interviews with respect and the aim of decolonization.

My guest today is Laura Cupples, who served as the chair of Joseph Stramondo’s illuminating session of the Philosophy, Disability and Social Change conference last week. Laura graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2018, spent 18 months as a postdoctoral research fellow with the Collaborative on Health Reform and Independent Living, and currently teaches at Gonzaga University. She trained as a philosopher of science and studies philosophy of disability through the lens of science and values. When Laura is not doing philosophy, she likes to swim, throw pots, watch international murder mysteries, and spend time with her niece and nephew.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Laura! Please tell us about your history and what led you to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy.

As an undergraduate at Davidson College, I studied physics, and took only one core course in philosophy—Intro to Modern Philosophy with John Heil. I had no idea at that time that philosophy was something that I could realistically pursue as a career. My graduating class in physics was unique. There were only four of us—all women. Unfortunately, I never had a single female physics professor.

[Description of photo below: Laura, on the far right, sits in a shady park with her fellow physics major graduates from Davidson College (class of 2002) at a reunion weekend in Atlanta about eight years ago. From left to right, Diana, Cheryl, Meghan, and Laura, smile widely as they sit side-by-side with their arms around each other’s shoulders.]

It was difficult not having any women to mentor me in that field and I’d heard horror stories about the climate of most graduate programs in physics. I also realized, by the end of my time there, that I didn’t really care for lab work, and that I wanted to do something more social than sit around and crunch numbers all day. 

Furthermore, I had a difficult time with major depression during my undergraduate years. It took a toll on my schoolwork and my attendance, making it really difficult to do the quality of work that I wanted to be able to do. I’d always taken pride in being a good student. My depression interfered with that identity in a lot of ways. I probably should have been hospitalized my senior year, but I stuck it out and graduated on time. After graduation, I continued to have a hard time with my depression. I was feeling directionless because I knew that I didn’t want to pursue physics, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do instead. 

About eight years after graduation, I felt like I was healthy and stable enough to return to school. I’d always loved being a student and felt a real sense of loss when my chronic illness took that away from me as an undergraduate. So, I wanted to reclaim that part of my identity. I wanted to be part of an intellectual community again. I’d figured out that I wanted to approach the sciences from the standpoint of the humanities, and I started looking for academic programs that would let me do that. I wanted to stay close to my support system, so I looked at my local university and found that they had a strong program in both philosophy of science and history of science and technology. At the time, I didn’t know much about either of those disciplines; but my philosophy professor at Davidson had once told me that I should take more philosophy. So, I applied to the philosophy M.A. program at University of South Carolina. 

My first semester was completely overwhelming. I’d never written a 20-25-page term paper before, let alone three at once, and I had very little background in philosophy compared to my peers. I always felt as if I was asking basic questions. As a matter of survival, I had to set that feeling aside pretty quickly. My second semester, I took my first class in philosophy of science, as well as my first graduate history of technology class. I didn’t feel quite as unprepared for these courses, but I found my philosophy of science class disappointing. These philosophers weren’t really asking the kinds of questions that interested me. I found my history of technology class much more interesting because we explored the human and social side of science and technology. 

About the time that I got ready to apply for Ph.D. programs, and about the time I was ready to give up on philosophy and switch to STS, my academic advisor, Leah McClimans, encouraged me to present a paper at the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice Conference. When I attended that conference, I found, for the first time, that philosophy of science was really interesting. I felt like I’d found my people. They were asking questions that I was interested in—questions on the humanistic side of science, on values in science and technology, and on practice. I applied to both STS and philosophy Ph.D. programs and ended up staying at USC to complete my Ph.D. in philosophy. I continued to take history of science and technology classes as well, and I feel like those classes made me a better, more practice-oriented philosopher of science. I also continued working with Leah and, ultimately, she directed my dissertation on quality-of-life measurement in health care.

Laura, about halfway through your graduate program, you began to both identify as disabled and work in philosophy of disability. Please explain what motivated this transition and how this new identity shaped your graduate school experience and subsequent research.

Even though I’ve been dealing with major depression for over twenty years, off and on, I didn’t really come to see myself as disabled until about five years ago. I didn’t see my diagnosis as a political identity, nor as something to take pride in. However, I started reading a bit about disability as part of my dissertation research and with my peers in a bioethics and philosophy of medicine reading group. When, on one week, I was responsible for choosing the reading for our reading group, I chose Susan Wendell’s essay, “Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities”. It was the first time that I’d thought about my illness as a disability, a political identity, and as a place from which to advocate rather than as merely a source of disadvantage. 

I’d read other works on depression before—mainly memoirs. But I hadn’t read much disability studies literature. After reading Wendell’s article, I started exploring that discipline—mostly just for myself, but I also started connecting my research more to my dissertation work on quality of life. The final chapter of my dissertation, which was entitled “Disability, Epistemic Harms, and the Quality-Adjusted Life Year”, served as a springboard into more research on disability policy and philosophy of disability after graduation. After graduation, I accepted a postdoctoral research fellowship with the Collaborative on Health Reform and Independent Living, a disability and health policy research group. The fellowship, which was aimed at providing professional development for disabled scholars, was a fantastic experience. Almost all the researchers in that group are disabled themselves; it was wonderful to be in such an inclusive space.

While I was still studying at USC, I feel like my research into disability studies made me a better advocate for myself. I’d always felt both as if I had to apologize for my disability and really nervous about admitting it to my professors and advisors. But as I learned more about disability, I began to see the ways my disability had shaped my life for the better, even guiding me toward philosophy. It’s made me a more compassionate person; it’s made me more understanding towards others and encouraged my commitment to inclusive pedagogy. It’s made me a deeper thinking person, since depression encourages a certain degree of rumination and introspection—at least in my case. I also feel as if, in trying to understand my own illness, I started asking philosophical questions before I even realized that’s what I was doing: questions about normalcy and pathology, questions about accountability and blame, questions about identity, etc. 

The more that I learned about disability, the more that I saw what a rich area for philosophical research it is. I’m particularly interested in questions of epistemology of disability, science and values, and disability and measurement. I feel like a lot of people who study disability approach it primarily as an ethical issue. Of course, that’s part of what I do, but I also approach disability through a scientific lens. I don’t really know any other scholars approaching disability through philosophy of science—except perhaps Sara Goering at University of Washington. There are scholars approaching it through the lens of bioethics, but that isn’t really the same thing. So, I’ve carved a pretty unique niche for myself. 

What strategies have you learned to employ given your growing understanding of how ableism structures philosophy and academia more generally? How accessible and supportive was the University of South Carolina department, its faculty, and your graduate student peers?

I’ve always been pretty open about my disability—in part, because I had to be to get the accommodations that I needed, but also because I think that a lot of people have similar issues and talking about them helps destigmatize them for everyone. Certainly, there were other students with similar mental health issues at USC; and I think my willingness to be open about my depression helped them. I think that my openness increased awareness within the department in a way that benefited people other than me.

By the time that I started graduate school, I was much better at controlling my depression than I had been as an undergrad. I was better at recognizing it and intervening quickly; so, it wasn’t as severe or as long lasting, and it didn’t interfere with my life as much. But I still had two major depressive episodes as a graduate student. One of the things that’s really difficult for me to do when I’m depressed is writing, and in grad school you have a lot to write in a pretty short amount of time every semester. The first time that I got sick, I knew that I would have to tell my professors because it became so difficult to focus on my writing and I wasn’t making the kind of progress that I needed to make. 

I was really worried about telling people at first because, during my undergrad years, faculty definitely were not understanding. But I was taking a course with our chair at the time, Michael Dickson, who was incredibly understanding and kind about it. That certainly wasn’t my experience with all of my professors. One person told me that she didn’t think that i was cut out for a career as a philosopher because of my depression. I learned pretty quickly which professors in my department were accommodating and believed in me, and which ones weren’t accommodating and didn’t believe in me. When it came time to write my dissertation, I chose to work with faculty who were supportive. My dissertation director, Leah McClimans, was an incredible advocate for me and I’m really grateful to her for her support. 

Chris Tollefsen was another professor who was a huge help to me—he was the graduate director at USC while I was finishing my coursework. During my second bout of depression, I wanted to withdraw from one of my classes, but couldn’t get the form that I needed for a medical withdrawal. I’d talked to everyone trying to track it down. He went to the Dean’s office on my behalf and was told that “not even god can get that form,” but he kept asking and finally got hold of it for me. When he did, we made about fifty copies. So, I definitely had allies in the department who stood up for me and advocated for me. But there were a lot of obstacles too. 

One of the features either of my depression itself, or a side effects of the medication that I take—I’ve never been able to figure out which—is chronic fatigue. Because of that, I work shorter hours than a lot of my peers. I try to work as efficiently as I can in the early part of the day, because by 4pm, I’m completely spent. I can’t take weekends off like a lot of my peers do. I try to work every day so that I stay productive. So far, that strategy has worked well for me and has enabled me to keep up with the work that I need to do.  But it means that when department colloquia and things are scheduled late in the day, it’s hard for me to attend, even when I’d really like to do so. 

I’ve definitely been told that my “preference” for shorter workdays was impossible to maintain as an academic. As if it were just a matter of me not wanting to work longer hours, which is not true. I arrange my work week in the way that I need to do, just like anyone would and, so far, my work hasn’t suffered because of it. Some things are hard—like really long days at conferences with evening sessions or dinners out with colleagues—but I manage. Some people arrange their work weeks around family commitments. I arrange mine around when my mind works well. We have different motivations, but the outcome is the same.

You identify as neurodivergent. How do you think neurodivergence has shaped your experiences as a teacher, your experiences with online teaching during the pandemic, and your experiences on the job market?

I’m still getting used to this identity and figuring out what it means for me. My niece is autistic, and much of my family has ADD as well. A few years ago, I started connecting with autistic adults to try to learn more about autism, primarily as a way to better connect with my niece. Within a couple of months, both they and my sister (my niece’s mom) were telling me that they thought that I was on the spectrum. At first, I was kind of resistant—I’d always just thought of myself as introverted and socially awkward, not unlike a lot of academics. But I eventually joined an online support group for late-diagnosis autists and began to learn more about the things with which autistic folks struggle day in and day out. I found it very explanatory. There were hermeneutic resources in that community that helped me to make sense of my own experiences in new ways.

Autism helps explain why teaching is so stressful for me, even after six or seven years. I have a hard time reading my students’ social cues in the classroom and tend to mask my autism in the classroom. Masking is a way to project neurotypical behavior even when it doesn’t come naturally. I do pretty well with folks one on one, but I have a really hard time with groups. I find leading discussion emotionally exhausting because I must put a lot of conscious effort into reading my students, knowing when my questions are hitting the way that I want, interpreting silences, etc. I also have a hard time behaving as an extrovert and drawing others out; I’m naturally much more introverted. Because of my autism, I don’t exude confidence and energy in the classroom the way that a lot of teachers do. Sometimes my students interpret that as a lack of engagement. It makes it harder to draw them out. None of these factors make teaching unrewarding for me. I definitely do find it rewarding. It’s simply challenging for me in a particular way.

I’ve also figured out that, because I’m autistic, it is harder for me to switch gears mid-semester when something’s not working or, say, when a pandemic happens. I found the transition to online teaching very difficult to cope with last spring and didn’t do a great job converting my class mid-semester. This fall, I knew what was coming and was able to prepare for it; so, I feel like I’ve been much more successful this term. I’m trying to transform some of my challenges in the classroom into strategies for disability gain. Because I’m learning more about what being autistic means for me, I’m trying a different teaching method this semester in order to share the social and emotional labor of leading discussion. Students pair off to lead some of our conversations as a class. I think it’s a pedagogically valuable experience for them. It teaches them to ask good philosophical questions, which is one of the most important skills that I want my students to learn. The method is also designed to make them more invested in their own learning. They submit their discussion notes to me the night before and I give them feedback on their work. I’m also available to assist in class, since, ultimately, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we have a good discussion. I let them take the lead most of the time. It means giving up some of my control over what we discuss, but I think the benefits are definitely worth it. 

Being autistic is also a challenge on the job market—particularly when it comes to interviewing. Being on Zoom with five strangers, all of whom are minutely evaluating you and trying to gauge your personality and whether you’re a good fit for their department, is kind of a nightmare scenario for someone with autism. I feel like a lot of interviewers infer competence from confidence; it’s hard for me to appear confident when I’m masking or can’t read their social cues. A lot of the challenges with respect to job interviews are similar to the challenges that I face in a classroom. It’s exhausting and really nerve wracking. I’ve gotten better at it with experience, but I still find that I have a hard time anticipating what will interest interviewers and responding to them in the moment. 

Some people have advised me to disclose my autism to interviewers, but I worry about the social prejudice to which that opens me up. I had an interview a couple of years ago for a bioethics position during which the interviewers spent thirty-five minutes telling me how much their department valued diversity. When I opened up and shared with them that I was invisibly disabled, they looked at me like I had three heads. From the looks on their faces, I could tell that I’d said the wrong thing, that was not the kind of diversity that they valued. As a philosopher of disability, I feel as if my identity as a disabled scholar gives my work more credibility, but I have to balance that credibility against the academic ableism that I encounter in a lot of departments. 

Please describe your current research on reproductive justice for disabled people.

When I started to work with the Collaborative on Health Reform and Independent Living, I made a point of reading up on the research of the folks with whom I’d be working. Jean Hall, who is at the University of Kansas and was a member of the CHRIL research team, co-authored a paper on reproductive decision making for women with physical disabilities. I found the paper really fascinating and, as a woman with a disability, very relatable.

In my early 20’s, I made the decision not to have children. But I think that I didn’t appreciate until much later how much pressure from friends and family and my doctors contributed to that decision. My mother and my sister told me repeatedly that they didn’t think that I was cut out to be a parent and my doctor put me on meds that cause significant “birth defects.” I was told that it would be really risky to stop taking the medication and that most women who became pregnant while taking these meds aborted the pregnancies. Being a parent just didn’t seem like a realistic option. Between reading Jean’s paper, as well as getting to know, over the last three to four years, other women with psychiatric disabilities who are parents, I’ve seriously reconsidered what’s possible. I’m forty now—probably too old to have a child—and I’m angry that that choice was taken from me. 

I’ve also read a lot of Black feminist thought over the last few years, including Patricia Hill Collins’s work on Black mothers in her book Black Feminist Thought, and Shatema Threadcraft’s book, Intimate Justice. Their work got me thinking about reproductive justice more generally. So, when it came time for me to write up a grant proposal two years ago as part of my postdoc, I proposed a research project on reproductive justice for women with disabilities. In part, I’m interested in the way that our social imaginary and the master narratives that we tell as a society, both about mothers and about disability, constrain the roles that we’re willing to let disabled women fill.

Disabled women are widely perceived to be asexual, as needing care rather than giving it, as liable to pass on their disabilities, and as globally incompetent. Basically, women with disabilities are perceived as risky prospects for parenthood and considered selfish if they have children. These narratives are borne out in family law. In twenty-nine states, if you are a woman with a disability, you can lose custody of your children because of your diagnosis alone; that is, even if you haven’t abused or neglected them. Disabled parents lose custody of their children at three times the national rate of nondisabled parents. And none of what I’ve said takes into account the long history of eugenics in this country that prevented many disabled women from having children to begin with.

I’m also a philosopher of measurement—my dissertation was on quality-of-life measures in medicine—so I’m interested in the ways that the family court system uses parenting-competency assessments as evidence in custody hearings. A lot of these measures are value laden in some quite pernicious and ableist ways. Some are normed to married, white, college-educated parents, so they implicitly convey a very particular view of what a family should look like. Others have very questionable validity—they’re repurposed IQ tests or personality tests that were never meant to assess parenting competence. Finally, many of the psychologists who administer these assessments aren’t culturally competent when it comes to disability. The tests are administered without appropriate accommodations—for instance, blind parents are tested on their parenting skills in unfamiliar spaces, deaf parents are assessed without an interpreter present, etc.—so the outcomes are really biased.

Laura, would you like to make any additional remarks about something that you’ve discussed in this interview or make some recommendations of what readers and listeners of the interview should seek out on anything you’ve discussed?

I’ve already mentioned along the way a lot of the literature which I read on disability that has influenced me over the years. Jean Hall’s paper on reproductive decision making for disabled women is called “Paying the Price to Get There” and is co-authored with T.A. LaPierre and M.K. Zimmerman. If folks are interested in learning more about reproductive justice for disabled people, I would definitely recommend the National Council on Disability’s report, Rocking the Cradle. There are also advocacy groups working on this issue if people want to get involved. Through the Looking Glass, based in California, helps disabled parents in their interactions with social services and the National Research Center for Parents with Disabilities is based at Brandeis University. Both groups conduct activist research on reproductive justice for parents with disabilities. 

Two of my favorite works on disability studies that I haven’t mentioned are The Disabled State, by historian Deborah Stone, and Feminist, Queer, Crip, by Allison Kafer. The Disabled State looks at the history of our conceptions of disability through the lens of the economic model and is really helpful for learning and thinking about the origins of disability policy and benefits administration, as well the fascinating history of English poor law and the German reform movement. Kafer’s book is a really nice introduction to the political model of disability, which is the model that I probably find most appealing. It looks at the ways that policy affects people’s experience of disability, in contexts ranging from healthcare to outdoor recreation to education. It also looks at disability through a more intersectional lens than a lot of other works. 

Another book that I’ve found really helpful in guiding my research on disability is Nancy Arden McHugh’s book The Limits of Knowledge. It’s a collection of essays based on participatory research in situated communities, often with disabled and chronically ill groups. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of interview-based research, which I think is absolutely essential for capturing a disability standpoint and giving disabled people a greater voice in my work. I have two interview-based research papers currently under review—one is about the role of disabled researchers in disability and health policy research and the ways that they can access a more robust disability standpoint by connecting with the larger disability community. The other, a co-authored paper from my time with the CHRIL, focuses on current US health policy and its effects on employment and independent living for disabled adults.

Finally, I just want to give a shout out to all the disabled and non-disabled scholars who have mentored and supported me along the way. Thanks to Joe Stramondo, who has really taken me under his wing, to Sean Valles, Audrey Yap, Leah McClimans, Michael Dickson, Chris Tollefsen, Jae Kennedy, Liz Wood, Quill Kukla, and Kevin Timpe.

And thank you, Shelley, for inviting me to give this interview. I’ve really enjoyed having the opportunity to share my story with everyone.

Laura, thanks so much for these recommendations and for your forthright remarks throughout this interview. They are welcome contributions to the Dialogues on Disability series.

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


Please join me at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY again on Wednesday, January 20th at 8 a.m. E.S.T., for the seventieth 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 PHILOSOPHY here.

Follow BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY on Twitter at @biopoliticalph

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