Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain With Alex Bryant

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the sixth-anniversary installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I’m 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 exclusion, as well as personal and structural gaslighting in philosophy, and academia, more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.

During the past year, for the sixth year in a row, I conducted landmark interviews with disabled philosophers who are variously situated with respect to disability, race, gender, institutional status, age, culture, nationality, and sexuality and whose philosophical work covers a wide range of specializations and research interests. This sixth-anniversary installment of the series highlights insights and lessons that these philosophers offered the philosophical community, reflecting upon the contributions to philosophy that their interviews have made.

I am delighted that Alex Bryant, with whom I conducted a fascinating interview in January of this year, has returned to Dialogues on Disability to assist me with this celebratory anniversary installment of the series, bringing continuity to the series and expanding it in thought-provoking ways.

[Description of photo below: Alex, who is smiling widely, wears a toque on which is stenciled “FIGHT THE FEES” and “cfsfcéé,” the acronym for the Canadian Federation of Students/Fédération canadienne des étudiantes et étudiants. With his head tilted slightly to his right, Alex stands in front of large boulders of the Niagara Glen near Niagara Falls dressed in a t-shirt on top of another t-shirt.]

Alex and I acknowledge that the land on which we are located and working to produce this anniversary installment is the traditional territory of the Haudensaunee and Anishnaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldiman Treaty territory. We humbly offer the lessons and insights of this installment with respect and the aim of decolonization.

Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Alex! I am indebted to you for taking the time to produce this anniversary installment of Dialogues on Disability with me.

Alex, later in this interview, you and I will turn to reflect on your interview from January of this year; before we do that, however, there are several philosophers’ interviews that I’m eager for us to showcase. First up, the Quayshawn Spencer redux that I did in May of 2020. I revisited Quayshawn Spencer’s interview because I want readers and listeners of BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY who might not have visited Discrimination and Disadvantage—the philosophy blog on which I began the Dialogues on Disability series and on which Quayshawn’s interview originally appeared—to have the opportunity to benefit from his immense knowledge about the metaphysical status of race and its putative scientific grounding.

Like many of my interviewees in the past six years, Quayshawn, although he was initially a student in the sciences, switched to a major in philosophy after a philosophy course made an indelible impression on him. Quayshawn has established himself as an authority in the philosophy and science of race. In his interview with me, I asked Quayshawn whether he was worried about how his work on race might be perceived. In one part of his answer to the question, Quayshawn said:

I don’t believe that the term race is anything like, say, tiger, in American Emglish. If you randomly grab a few hundred American English speakers, take the to China or India, and ask then to point out the tigers, there will be near unanimity on what they point out. You can also ask them what are the superficial properties that almost all tigers share, and you’ll get largely overlapping answers. However, there’s plenty of empirical work that’s been done that shows that American English speakers don’t share that sort of agreement about “the races” are or what “the features” are that makes something a race. …Of course, there are non-pluralist ways of dealing with these experimental results … Sally Haslanger has argued, for instance, that we should ignore “the ordinary person’s ideas about race” because “the very social processes that create the divisions of privilege and advantage also obscure their workings.” However, I’m not convinced that experimental data about what ordinary people think about race is entirely worthless. Ordinary people should be reliable indicators of their own racial memberships. So, if racial self-reporting data are all over the place—which they are—then pluralism is a live option. Some other philosophers of race who have embraced racial pluralism, or something close to it, are Lionel McPherson and Michael Hardimon.

Given your own research on social categories, Alex, what do you think about Quayshawn’s insights on the metaphysics of race?

Hello Shelley, thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss the fantastic interviews you have published through Dialogues on Disability over the last year.

I think Quayshawn’s interview is compelling and I was very interested to read his discussion of lactase non-persistence as disability as a way into philosophy of disability. With respect to Quayshawn’s discussion of the metaphysics of race in the interview, Shelley, this passage points to an interesting problem for metaphysicians of social phenomena: how should one conceive of the interaction between the way people talk and the structure of the world? Quayshawn, in this passage, is pointing out that people from a range of educational and cultural backgrounds tend to share a conception of tigers, which they take the term tiger to pick out, while this is not the case for a term like race. Unlike with species terms, with the term race, and presumably with racial kind terms such as white, we don’t find the same overlap in people’s conceptions. I tend to think that Quayshawn is right about what the insights of ordinary language users can tell us about the metaphysics of race; but just how tight the connection is between the way people talk about racial concepts (including the concept of race itself) and the ontology of racial kinds is a difficult question.

As Quayshawn points out, Sally Haslanger (2009) is concerned with just how useful self-reported folk accounts of racial concepts are for some philosophical investigations into race—they will “rarely [be] a source of insight into the reality of racial hierarchy as it is lived,” Haslanger notes. However—and here I agree with Haslanger—“[i]nvestigation of unreflective ideas about race is potentially interesting because it can reveal how obscurantist ideology works (and anti-realists from Appiah to Glasgow offer important insights into this ideology).” With respect to Quayshawn’s assertion that “[o]rdinary people should be [treated as] reliable indicators of their own racial memberships,” I’m not sure, Shelley, but I’m interested. I am convinced that racial self-identification plays a role in the construction of a person’s race, as with other forms of identification with identity categories like gender, and I think Quayshawn is on to something in his recent paper on the radical racial pluralism of U.S. race talk.

Following the redux of your interview with Quayshawn Spencer, Shelley, you did an interview with Matthew Norman. As a reviving addict and a mature student, Matthew described how his background has not always allowed him to engage authentically with other undergraduate students at his university and how “[a]ddiction has shaped [his] learning experience.” Despite this, Matthew also described the importance of his background for his interest in philosophy.

At one point in your interview with Matthew, he described a breakthrough moment that he had with his friends. As he put it:

I got into Columbia University’s School of General Studies for Fall 2020. The guys around here couldn’t believe it. Someone told a reporter friend and they did this news special about “Local man beats heroin and heads to the Ivy League.” I mentioned in that news interview that I wanted to become a philosophy professor. I doubt that I will be able to go, but it is still really cool. I mean, it is ungodly expensive, and my credit is shot now. So, no private loans. Anyways, before that interview, all of the guys thought that I was full of it when I told them that I was going to college at the local community college. They told me to stay at the box factory because it is good money. They had an even better time with me when I told them that I was going to become a philosophy professor. Few even had the slightest notion of what philosophy is or, if they did, their notions of it involved heresy, communism, and making coffee at some hipster shop. After I began school, they could see a change in me, and they began to see the value in this thing. Our smoke deck conversations turned to discussions about knowledge and free will. Some even began to read Plato. When I got into Columbia, they became believers. They see me sober, doing well, going to school, and they are all wanting to do more; not more as in college per se, they simply see that they too can do something with their lives other than drugs and crime.

This anecdote pulled together a few threads that I would be interested to hear your views about, Shelley, namely, class, disability, age, prestige, respectability, and the intersection of these apparatuses in the perception of who is “believable” as a philosopher, or prospective philosopher. I wonder if you have any advice for undergraduate students like Matthew who are encountering the kinds of social sanctions that he described in his interview.

Alex, I was so happy when Matthew contacted me and asked to do an interview for the series. Like Matthew, many philosophy students fall outside of certain widely prescribed norms about who counts as intellectually serious and is thus deserving of philosophical tutelage. The Dialogues on Disability series has always worked to resist these disciplining and conformist tendencies in philosophy. Despite concerted efforts from various corners of the profession, however, discriminatory biases and deleterious assumptions about so-called non-traditional students persist. Philosophy and academia in general continue to be unwelcoming environments for a range of constituencies, including working-class, poor, older, reviving, and disabled students.

Although Matthew does not have the pedigree and accoutrements of privilege that the profession of philosophy and the university in general most desire and accommodate, Alex, he seems to have found a way to push back against or translate the pervasive messages that non-traditional students often encounter, messages according to which they don’t belong and might never belong, especially not at prestigious universities. Matthew has learned that the best reasons to be in philosophy, to stay in philosophy, or to leave philosophy will be the reasons that he gives himself.

Becoming a philosopher, taking on the identity of someone who spends a great deal of time with books, with words, and in the activity of writing can lead to some uncomfortable situations and strained relationships, Alex, especially if one has not been associated with these activities in the past. Taking up other new identities once one begins to engage in critical self-reflection can likewise entail experiences of cognitive dissonance. Many first-generation philosophy students share these experiences, as well as students from evangelical and other religious backgrounds, and queer and trans students who began to identify as such only after leaving these environments. It can indeed be difficult and perhaps even impossible to go home again, in a manner of speaking but also in very practical terms.

The discipline and profession of philosophy would likely gain a great deal by finding ways to mitigate the distance between a rarefied existence and the often difficult and uncomfortable realities with which many first-generation, poor, working-class, and other non-traditional philosophy students and faculty grapple when they do return to their origins, so to speak. In any case, Alex, I think Matthew’s friends at the His Way Recovery Center may grapple with a new Matthew in some of the ways that Jennifer Morton discusses in her recent book, Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility, a book that demands to be read by philosophers who continue to hold presumptions about who belongs in the field and who doesn’t belong.

In my interview with Paul Lodge, Alex, he also addressed the issues of belonging in philosophy and of how pronounced the judgements about who qualifies as a legitimate philosopher can be. Paul indicated that he often perceives such judgements in reaction to his forthright discussions with colleagues about his identity. At one place in his interview, Paul stated:

To identify as a philosopher and “insane” isn’t quite oxymoronic, but it is certainly something that I didn’t want to risk until very recently; since then, there have certainly been situations in which I have talked openly with people from whom I expected very different reactions, having left these situations with feelings of deeper alienation and regret. Such reactions are perhaps the most obvious manifestations that I have confronted of both other people’s ableism and my own internalized ableism. My own reactions are reflected in the fact that it wasn’t until I had achieved promotion to full professor that I was willing to self-identify publicly as someone with bipolar disorder. Even now, an interview like this fills me with anxiety, trepidation, and concrete fear that I will be taken less seriously as a thinker and will find myself even more socially isolated because other people, other philosophers, will find my embrace of this identity uncomfortable.

What are your thoughts about Paul’s observations on these manifestations of ableism and the internalized ableism that they foster, Alex?

I must say, Shelley, that I identify completely with Paul’s comments here, especially his comment that he was not willing to self-identify with bipolar openly until reaching the highest rung of the academic ladder, so to speak. Especially in the case of so-called “mood disorders,” I have often encountered skepticism about the veracity of the effects of mood-related illness on one’s capacities. These kinds of reactions, of course, impact one’s own self-conception and can have the effect (among others) of leading one to feel as though one’s experiences of depression, mania, and hypomania are just one’s own individual weaknesses and, furthermore, that the consequences of these weaknesses are one’s own “fault.”

As you’ve repeatedly argued in your work, Shelley, this view of institutionalized ableism gets the phenomenon backwards: the institution and its actors create disability itself through ableist reactions to perceptions of difference, perceptions of difference that are co-constitutive with the difference itself. In the case of the profession, Paul’s experience puts in relief the professional sanctions that one might experience for “coming out” as bipolar. I believe Paul’s fears are credible: there is significant professional risk to openly identifying with bipolar that may otherwise have had detrimental consequences for Paul’s career, preventing him from reaching a senior position in the profession. I suspect this risk pertains especially if one is disabled in ways that effect on one’s capacity to live up to the disciplinary norms of rationality.

Shelley, your interview with Johnathan Flowers followed your interview with Paul Lodge, and it was striking to me how much Johnathan’s comments aligned with Paul’s, including Johnathan’s discussion of belonging in philosophy in general and in Africana philosophy more specifically. Many aspects of Johnathan’s interview are worth revisiting, but I want to ask you a question that pertains to Johnathan’s remarks about ableism in bioethics. In Johnathan’s critical discussion of ableist arguments that Anthony Appiah advanced last year in “The Ethicist” and their relation to arguments that Peter Singer has made, he writes:

[P]hilosophy has enabled a culture where philosophers can treat the lived experiences of minoritized persons as fodder for thought experiments. To be specific, Appiah’s article was connected with a long history of ethics and bioethics treating the lives of people with disabilities as a kind of moral playground, with the ultimate implication that one would be better off dead than disabled. In so doing, philosophy actively contributes to the dehumanization and marginalization of people with disabilities and provides cover for the ableist decision making in our relationships with other persons, institutions, and society at large. […]

Perhaps in an ideal world where the construction of people with disabilities as burdens was not an organizing principle of our society, where we are not things for medicine and science to fix, are not unsightly bodies to be avoided, we might get some work out of the arguments that these scholars seemed to make. But we don’t live in such a society; and work like Appiah’s and Singer’s, and the kinds of conversations ongoing in our intro classes and our field more generally almost ensure that we never will have such a world. The very context in which such an argument is deployed, in my view, actively prevents the argument from taking hold in a meaningful way because it reinforces the structures of oppression that construct people with disabilities as personally burdensome.

Shelley, Johnathan’s discussion reminded me of the work that you have done over the past year on medically assisted dying (MAiD). This work has addressed the legitimacy of idealized feminist bioethics in much the same way that I see Johnathan’s critical treatment of Appiah and Singer do. Shelley, can you say a bit about your view of the state of bioethical encounters with disability, especially in light of your work on MAiD in Canada?

Thanks for highlighting this section of Johnathan’s interview, Alex. In his interview, Johnathan made some very pointed remarks about how bioethics constructs disabled people and the consequences of this construction for the ways in which philosophy students come to understand disability and disabled people and thus how disabled philosophers are invariably treated in the profession, topics that I discuss at length in the fifth chapter of Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. To date, the wider philosophical community has largely ignored the fundamentally political character of the practices and claims of bioethicists, enabling the field of bioethics to persist sequestered in its own arena as a technology of normalization and eugenics under the guise of a noble and compassionate intellectual pursuit.

The recent events with respect to the expansion of MAiD in Canada with Bill C-7 are a glaring case in point. The MAiD legislation, which, in all its incarnations, Canadian bioethicists have fostered, institutionalizes the ableist notion according to which disabled people’s lives are less valuable, less worthy of protecting, burdensome, and generally bothersome. The implications of the legislation have galvanized disabled Canadians opposed to it.

Yet the Canadian philosophical community has largely adopted a position of indifference to the massive opposition that the legislation has generated from disabled Canadians and organizations of disabled people, working on behalf of disabled people; from Indigenous leaders and their communities; from Black Lives Matter chapters; from Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations; legal experts; and medical professionals themselves. Even Canadian feminist and other philosophers who pride themselves on their outspoken character have not challenged the eugenic impetus of legislation that their colleagues have initiated. The abiding complacency of Canadian philosophers to the ableism that conditions the profession and discipline of philosophy in Canada is nothing short of astonishing.

In Michelle Ciurria’s interview with me, she linked analysis of ableism to capitalism and racism in some important ways, underscoring the fundamental nature of these intersecting oppressions to our current society. At one place in her richly intersectional interview, Michelle remarked,

On a Marxist analysis of disability, ableist oppression is not merely a by-product of capitalism, but rather a precondition of it. In the words of Marta Russell, capitalism “creates (and then oppresses) the so-called disabled body as one of the conditions that allow the capitalist class to accumulate wealth” (2019: 16). Disability is used as a basis for labour-market exclusion, resulting in high unemployment for disabled people (7.3% compared to 3.5% of nondisabled people; but see my remarks about these figures below). One might think that disability is a liability to the ruling class and therefore something that corporate owners have an interest in eliminating.

But the exact opposite is true: capitalism depends on a stable pool of “unemployables” drawn from the most oppressed groups—disabled people, women, BIPOC—to maximize profits at the top. Marx described the unemployed class as a “surplus population,” which corporations exploit to control the labour supply. A group of perpetually unemployed people is good for business because it produces a “a very realistic fear among workers of becoming disabled” and unemployed, which ensures a strong work ethic in the working class (Russell: 34); it makes wage labour seem less horrible compared to the alternative of marginalization and poverty; it creates a “reserve army of labour” that can be recruited during labour shortages to keep profits up; and it incites competition between artificially segregated groups (e.g., unionized and ununionized workers, workers and welfare recipients), suppressing attempts to mobilize against the ruling class.

Thus, “compulsory unemployment” isn’t a liability or an accident but rather a design feature of capitalism, which allows corporate owners to control production. …As an episodically disabled woman and a migrant worker with limited earning potential, I am multiply oppressed under capitalism, and this isn’t due to my choices, or “bad luck,” or a glitch in the market system, but is rather an example of capitalism working as intended. In a capitalist economy, people like me are supposed to be exploited, marginalized, and exhausted.

Marxist and other historical materialist analyses are generally discounted in philosophy these days, Alex. So, I’m very keen to know what you think of Michelle’s analysis of ableism and its ties to capitalism, racism, and sexism.

In my experience you are right, Shelley: historical materialist and general Marxist analyses are often discounted in philosophy. I think this is poor form, not least because Marxisms continue to have a serious impact upon a range of disciplines doing valuable, systemic work that philosophers ought to be reading. We can take systematic objections to historical materialism—such as Popper’s—and to works in the Marxist tradition seriously without rejecting either one of them out of hand.

I was quite interested by the analysis that Michelle introduces from Marta Russell. This view of the construction of the class position of disabled persons is convincing, but it also poses a further question for those interested in the dialectical relationship between Marxist political struggle and Marxist research. As I understand Marx on the point Michelle is raising, insofar as unemployed disabled persons are positioned as “unemployables” in capitalist societies, they make up part of what Marx calls “the lumpenproletariat.”

If that is right, then we ought to be cautious about taking Marx’s (and Engels’s) original view of such persons, given that Marx describes the lumpenproletariat as a kind of unthinking mob liable to easy radicalization against the liberatory struggle of the proletariat; or as Michelle writes: “a ‘reserve army of labour’ that can be recruited […] [for] suppressing attempts to mobilize against the ruling class.” 

But we don’t need to be originalists about Marxism. For example, I think it is reasonable to take up Michelle’s insight regarding the capitalist construction of disability without requiring the further reading that such persons are easy fodder for radicalization—that is, we can have a Marxist analysis without having Marx’s analysis.

Reading your October interview with Nathan Moore, Shelley, I saw a similar theme emerge. Nathan said:

The second major change in my research since I began to identify as autistic is a change of focus from philosophy of physics to philosophy of disability and feminist philosophy. Not only is philosophy of disability useful and important to me as a disabled philosopher, but I find it so much more interesting and rewarding than the work that I have done in the past. […] I also think that research on issues related to oppression requires more than just paying attention to philosophical works by members of a variety of marginalized groups. I don’t think that attention to this work is sufficient to develop the hermeneutical resources necessary to properly understand, appreciate, and engage with that philosophical material. I think identification of the full range of hermeneutical resources used in the understanding of a particular issue is extremely difficult, if not impossible to pin down. I suspect that’s partly why it can be so difficult to explain experiences to other people even when they’re willing to listen carefully. I have no idea what hermeneutical resources I’m tacitly relying on when trying to explain an experience even if I’m aware of some particularly important resources that I am in a position to explain. […] Consequently, I think that both the production of adequate scholarly work in philosophy of disability and the practice of good citizenship require that one read a wide variety of works written by members of a variety of oppressed groups.

Later in his interview, however, Shelley, Nathan expressed his worry about the precarity that accompanies his turn to philosophy of disability:

I am extremely concerned about my future well-being and extremely fearful that my future well-being unavoidably hinges on philosophy departments making significant changes to increase diversity in the near future. Such change is something that I am almost entirely convinced will not happen given how many decades many departments have been committed to” increasing diversity while still failing to make any significant and meaningful steps toward doing so, especially refusing to hire people who work in philosophy of disability and similar areas. Such positions would, far more often than not, be filled by members of the relevant group. Commitment to open contests for employment positions can’t explain the lack of diversity that we continue to see in philosophy when there is an obvious approach available that increases diversity both with respect to who is hired and with respect to what sort of scholarly work is pursued.

I think that Nathan’s interview draws out a tension for disabled philosophers of disability which also comes out in Michelle’s preceding interview: namely, that disabled philosophers of disability have a valuable perspective from which to do philosophy of disability and, furthermore, often want to engage in philosophical inquiry about disability because of their experiences; however, disabled philosophers put themselves at greater risk of unemployment because of the marginalization of critical work on disability in philosophy. Though philosophy of disability may be of significant political value—as we know and see reflected in Michelle’s interview—pursuing philosophy of disability as disabled philosophers may be very high risk. Given your research on the state of the profession for disabled philosophers, Shelley, I would be quite interested to hear your perspective on the challenges that disabled philosophers of disability who seek academic employment face—is there any cause for hope?

Thanks for posing this question, Alex, and for underscoring the implications of the dilemma that Nathan and other disabled philosophers who want to develop the field of philosophy of disability confront. The dilemma is in fact multidimensional, as Nathan’s remarks suggest. I have studied these dimensions for quite some time and have written at length about them. First, the conception of disability that prevails in philosophy reproduces assumptions according to which disability is a natural disadvantage, a personal misfortune, and a characteristic, difference, or property of individuals. In Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, I identify the myriad ways in which this conception of disability is inextricably entwined with the underrepresentation—no, let’s call it what it is—the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession. Because disability is naturalized through the prevailing conception of it, that is, because philosophers assume that disabled people are somehow naturally flawed, are unreliable, are compromised in some way, we are not regarded as potentially excellent, nor even viable, colleagues.

As I indicated earlier in this installment, Alex, the subfield of bioethics is the technology of government that has enabled the institutionalization and reproduction of the individualized and medicalized conception of disability that currently predominates in philosophy, though cognitive science and cognate fields steadily reinforce and support this conception in ways that also detrimentally encroach upon disabled people’s lives. Given the dominance of this conception in philosophy, philosophy departments are not motivated to advertise jobs with an AOS in philosophy of disability nor hire specialists in the area. Since a growing number of disabled philosophers do indeed want to specialize in philosophy of disability, an area in which these disabled philosophers believe that they can make innovative and important contributions to the discipline, they are institutionally disadvantaged.

Note, Alex, that the dilemma for disabled philosophers is posed due to institutional, disciplinary, and structural circumstances rather than a result of bad personal choices. As I pointed out in a recent article, to date, no department anywhere in the world has posted a job with an AOS in philosophy of disability, although philosophy of disability has been produced for more than a decade. As I have repeatedly pointed out in publications and on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, furthermore, the architectural framework of the PhilPapers and PhilJobs databases are in this regard crucial factors in the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession. These databases systematically reproduce the marginalization of philosophy of disability. In other words, PhilPapers and PhilJobs, as well as the APA under whose auspices these databases operate, are in effect implicitly implicated in the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession and the marginalization of critical philosophical work on disability from the discipline.

In short, Alex, significant structural and institutional change is required to dissolve the dilemma for disabled philosophers to which Nathan drew attention in his interview. At present, however, I perceive very little motivation within the profession to initiate the kinds of change that equity for disabled philosophers and recognition of philosophy of disability demand, as well as very little initiative to instigate such change on the part of philosophers who are well placed to do so. The urgent change required demands that nondisabled philosophers (and disabled philosophers who pass or have passed as nondisabled) educate themselves about their ableism and begin to challenge the institutional structures of ableism from which they benefit.

Alex, in November of last year, I reposted a terrific interview with Julie Maybee that I had initially posted in July 2018. Julie has done some of the most complex work to date on conceptions of disability and impairment, drawing upon various philosophical traditions outside of mainstream, Anglo-American Western philosophy in order to do so. At one place in her interview, Julie made remarks that reinforce my claims about the structural change required in order to make philosophy more heterogeneous, saying:

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.

Alex, I know that you are especially interested in ways in which to diversify pedagogy. What would you add to Julie’s remarks?

Thank you, Shelley. I was glad to read Julie’s comments regarding Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and accessibility in the context of teaching philosophy. UDL is an approach to instructional design that puts into practice the notion of moving the margin to the centre—in this case, designing courses and lessons in ways that avoid creating disability in the classroom in the first place.

The UDL model emphasizes creating multiple modes of representation (different ways of acquiring information and knowledge, including having multiple options for “reading,” including print, digital text, audiobooks, videos, etc.), expression (having different options for demonstrating what is known, including offering multiple options for assessment), and engagement (different ways of challenging students, including drawing connections to contemporary issues, using demonstrations, and doing laboratory learning activities). As Julie points out, Shelley, some pressure has been placed on the accessibility of the content of philosophical education through movements to diversify the material that is taught in philosophy departments.

While I think that this is a valuable shift, Shelley, I agree with Julie that the profession must also consider the accessibility of the lecture/tutorial style, as well as the accessibility of the form of the material with which philosophy instructors wish students to engage. In my own thinking about this, I have similarly been interested in how to provide students with multiple modalities for expression and engagement, especially as this multiplicity is related to assessment. I think it’s reasonable to treat our disciplinary norms of assessment vis-à-vis writing and “participation” as sites of struggle for accessibility in much the same way that many philosophers already think about their syllabi.

Despite how difficult the last year has been, Shelley, I am hopeful that the abrupt move to online coursework brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up the profession somewhat with respect to pedagogy and accessibility. I imagine that this historical moment constituted the first time, in a very long time, that some instructors were forced to reconsider their teaching practice as a whole. I hope that this rethinking will yield a new commitment to accessible pedagogy, as well as a new interest in the role of philosophy of disability in the development of teaching practice.

In December, Shelley, you interviewed Laura Cupples. I found Laura’s comments regarding her experiences as a disabled graduate student familiar and validating. In one passage of the interview, Laura’s comments accord with remarks made in many of the interviews that we have discussed above, namely, that graduate study in philosophy, as well as the profession itself, are intensely social. In one place, Laura stated:

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 […]

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 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.

These comments from Laura draw out how disabilities which impact one’s ability to engage in the social life of the discipline have a double effect of impacting one’s opportunities in the field itself. Similarly, Shelley, disabilities that impact one’s capacity to live up to disciplinary norms of productivity are treated as indicators that one may not be suitable for work in the profession rather than indicators of something wrong with the profession itself. What is your perspective on this social aspect of working in philosophy? Are there other parts of the discipline itself that structurally disadvantage disabled philosophers through informal social exclusion?

Alex, my first reaction to your questions is this: wow, these questions are huge! Ultimately, however, answers to them lead us back to my remarks with respect to Nathan Moore’s interview, that is, I’m inclined to say that Laura’s remarks exemplify how the conception of disability that prevails in philosophy, according to which disabled people are naturally disadvantaged, defective, flawed, and so on, is inextricably entwined with and reinforces the exclusion of disabled people from philosophy.

I think it’s been very illuminating to watch how the veneration of sociality in philosophy—which, by the way, Paul Lodge also remarked upon in his interview with me—has played out during the pandemic. Certain philosophers whose professional personas and self-conceptions seem reliant upon their social performances at conferences and seminars have expressed great anguish that opportunities to do so have been removed from them. I would love to think that some of these philosophers will reflect upon the professional capital that accrues to them, but not to some others, from the access to these venues that they enjoy. I think, furthermore, that Laura’s remarks in this regard pose a direct challenge to ways in which the profession can be quite punitive to philosophers who do not conform to certain expectations about individual behaviour and social interaction that are usually unstated and hence largely unacknowledged but nevertheless disciplining.

Alex, the Dialogues on Disability series started off 2021 with your interview in January. I’d like it if for the moment we lingered on questions with respect to accessibility. In response to a question that I posed to you about accessible pedagogy and writing instruction, you said:

In my case, I am not overstating things when I say that getting a clear picture in my third year of what I was meant to do in a philosophy paper transformed my experience of academic writing from a torrent of hopelessness and shame to one of excitement and manageable challenge. This new understanding did wonders for my mental health. Unfortunately, the most common reaction from students in tutorials where I aim to remedy gaps in instruction like this has been relief that they finally understand what they are meant to do and how to do it.

In one sense, the accessibility problem here should be obvious: if we don’t make the right parts of our expectations explicit, students who don’t have previous understanding of how to approach assignments will be at a disadvantage relative to those who do. While both sets of students might share some completed aspects of the submitted assignment—word count, on topic, correct margins—one set of students will require much different support than the other set. Common forms of assignment accommodation also won’t remedy the deeper problem of the hermeneutical lacuna or the possible skills-deficit which divide each group—i.e., you might have the skills but not know what to do with them, or neither have the skills nor know what to do. In our discipline, that centrally means addressing papers and writing skills.

As a baseline, clear rubrics, detailed assignment outlines, and opportunities to develop or rehearse the skills required to complete the relevant assignments will provide students with every opportunity to construct a robust understanding of what they are meant to do, how they are meant to do it, and what the model for success in that assignment is meant to be. Surely some people do this well already, but I am suggesting that departments and the discipline as a whole take this seriously as a matter of accessibility. That basis, I expect, will provide the opportunity for someone with cognitive disabilities to autonomously assess their needs with respect to accommodation and to have greater opportunity for success in their coursework.

I think our readers and listeners would love to learn more about your thoughts in this regard, Alex. Do you wish to elaborate?

Thank you, Shelley—though you have put back to me another huge question! There are at least two things at work in this interview that I don’t think I drew out clearly enough.

First, I think that given how philosophers and philosophy graduates speak about the practical value of studying philosophy in terms of things like writing and analytic capacities, skills training ought to be intentionally incorporated into curricula and, ideally, planned at the departmental level. Notice: I am not saying that philosophy departments should give in to the neoliberal demand that university departments express their learning outcomes in terms of employability. Rather, Shelley, I think that philosophers themselves have views of the value of studying and doing philosophy and that these views about the value of philosophy for life (i.e., the ones that philosophers won’t find vulgar) give teachers of philosophy good reason to pursue instructional design that sets up students to acquire the skills often used to “do” philosophy. I think that, if one is convinced of this, it follows that we should also be intentional about teaching students the skills required to “do” philosophy in the post-secondary context. Many will be aware of how wide the gap can be between these two skillsets. If that gap is troubling (as it often is), it should give us extra reason to get involved in educational politics. So much more to say about this, of course.

The second piece is this: there is a tight connection, Shelley, between the structuration of university teaching and the reproduction of ableism in the university. As Michelle pointed out in her interview with you, one way in which this relation has coalesced is through the adjunctification of humanities teaching. Adjunctification is a symptom of the corporatization of post-secondary education over at least the last 40 years in Canada, constructing ableism in post-secondary education by constraining the capacity of instructors to engage in radically inclusive course design.

Because we know that the neoliberal university will not of its own accord change the conditions of instruction or the disabling assumptions of “accommodationist” practices, full-time permanent teachers are in a better position to pursue anti-ableist instructional design than precariously employed teaching staff. Of course, full-time teachers are themselves constrained in their ability to design radically inclusive coursework, but they are not as constrained as precariously employed, underpaid university workers. Because of the exclusion of disabled philosophers from the field and the marginalization of philosophy of disability, however, understanding how ableism is constructed both in the university sector and through university teaching itself is unlikely to reach and motivate such teachers. So, ableism in academia continues to expand. I imagine that you know this already, Shelley, because I’ve basically just both described the problem in what I think are Foucauldian terms and suggested the value of BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY and the Dialogues on Disability interviews!!

In February, Shelley, you interviewed Gerald Moore. I was familiar with much of the literature that Gerald mentioned over the course of his interview, but his account of “dopamining” interested me immensely—more reading to do! In light of the themes arising in earlier interviews, I was struck by the discussion of “homelessness” that you had with Gerald, given that he has a Ph.D. in French, pursues interdisciplinary research, and primarily engages with so-called “continental” figures such as Bernard Stiegler. For instance, Gerald said:

For a good few years, I was so grateful for secure employment that I didn’t think too hard about where I fitted in. But that is no longer the case, and I am torn between the freedom of my current department and the worry that colleagues see me as some kind of indulged and gilded amateur riding on the coattails of a legendary bullshit merchant.

Let’s start by saying that my homelessness has none of the peripatesis that we nowadays tend to fetishize. Without [polycystic kidney disease], I think that I’d likely have sought to switch to an STS or history and philosophy of science department by now, or even better, would have sought to build one of my own in Durham; but I don’t have the energy for the latter and my accumulated sick leave entitlement would reset if I moved elsewhere, which is not a risk that I can take. Maybe if I went to conferences, I’d find more homes away from home. But, even before dialysis and transplant listing—which means I must stay within fifty miles of the hospital—that was no longer an option, due to the risk of infection and exhaustion. I was once hospitalized for a week in Paris after waking up unable to walk, and shortly before that I’d heard my toe snap while bending down in an airport. Perhaps Deleuze was right that the true nomad never moves at all … […]

It’s not enough for researchers to retreat into fragmented communities where they are shielded from scrutiny by inaccessible language games, or where they can speak to each other without reference to anyone else. The ivory towers myth of hermetic, insulated, academia is garbage, but I do worry that colleagues withdraw into engrossing irrelevances as an antidote to the stresses of the outside world.

I have some sense, Shelley, that philosophers of disability face a similar outsider-insider dynamic, as described by Gerald: trained in philosophy, working across disciplinary boundaries, and perhaps feeling a sense of academic homelessness of the sort that Gerald describes. One question that comes to mind is whether philosophers of disability should want the contemporary iteration of academic philosophy as a home at all. In light of all of the experiences of exclusion described in the earlier interviews Shelley, what do you think motivates philosophers of disability and disabled philosophers to stand by the discipline rather than, say, leave it for other more inviting academic homes?

Alex, as you might imagine, I could say a lot in response to this question and I have said quite a bit in various publications and posts here at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. Let me see if I can put a new spin on my “complaint,” a signifier that should be understood to embody many of Sara Ahmed’s insights about the use of it.

First, Alex, philosophy professors don’t generally tell their disabled students who aspire to specialize in philosophy of disability that the discipline is hostile to critical philosophical work on disability. Nor do they generally tell their disabled students at the outset that they can expect to meet with direct and implicit hostility in philosophy, be systematically excluded from it, be discounted, get little mentorship, get treated differently than their nondisabled peers, and so on. Nathan Moore, in the interview that we’ve discussed, nicely described his eventual recognition of these factors.

Indeed, disabled students and faculty usually come to recognize these events and processes themselves. This realization often comes at a point after which a disabled student or faculty member has spent years in the discipline, that is, comes only after one has invested a significant amount of money, time, and effort to do well as a philosopher, after significant dimensions of one’s identity and life-plans have been formulated around philosophical work and communities. Despite what one might read about how philosophy degrees are welcomed in a variety of domains, furthermore, my experience has shown me that faculty in many other disciplines are suspicious of, or intimidated by, philosophers and philosophy degrees. So, Alex, there are certain incentives to stay and to continue to try to improve the situation within philosophy for disabled philosophers, which is, in a number of respects, continuous with, and reinforces, work to improve the situation of disabled people in society more generally.

Second, as I point out in my recent article in Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, many disabled philosophers of disability do in fact migrate to other disciplines and even other countries to get work. I am the only practicing disabled philosopher of disability in Canada thus far who has stayed in philosophy and I’m precariously underemployed. Every other practicing disabled philosopher of disability who took their Ph.D. from a Canadian philosophy department has either left Canada for a job elsewhere in another discipline, has gone to another discipline within Canada, or has left academia altogether.

The ableism of Canadian philosophy departments is not, however, isolated to these departments. Ableism is woven into the fabric of the tradition of philosophy and current philosophical discourse internationally, though there are geopolitical and cultural differences with respect to how this ableism manifests. For instance, as we’ve noted, I have been concerned to point out how bioethics has shaped Canadian philosophy and philosophy departments to the detriment of disabled philosophers and disabled people in in Canada in general.

What is especially frustrating, Alex, is that philosophers in Canada and elsewhere who could tangibly change the situation of disabled philosophers of disability do not seem too concerned to do so, although they may think that they contribute considerably to such change. I have written quite a bit about the epistemological, conceptual, structural, and other institutionalized mechanisms that operate to marginalize philosophy of disability and exclude disabled philosophers. Yet the fundamental claims of my work have been largely avoided or disregarded.

Nevertheless, let me state this directly: including an article or two by a disabled philosopher of disability on syllabi once or twice year is, by itself, not going to do much at all to change the ableist power dynamics of philosophy nor, by itself, is including the term crip theory in calls for papers. In my book and in various other publications, I have repeatedly pointed out and indeed a growing number of disabled philosophers point out, that the very terms of reference for our work must be changed: how our work gets classified, how specializations in philosophy that potentially comprise our work are identified, how job postings get described, and so on. To date, our reports in this regard seem to have been discounted or ignored. In my view, these acts of disregard display significant disrespect and amount to structural gaslighting.

In her interview with me last month, Jennifer Scuro implicitly drew attention to this structural gaslighting and to the inadequacies with the ways in which philosophers currently attempt to diversify the profession and discipline with respect to disability, and did so by associating the precarity of the institution with the ableism of philosophy. In a pertinent section of her interview, Jennifer remarked:

Addressing precarity is essential for understanding the fully invisible operations of ableism because both precarity and ableism are products of neoliberalism, an economy that operates as if it is “better to be dead than disabled.” I then apply this discussion of precarity to a concept of prosthesis, articulating an idea of “prosthetic effect” in which I suggest all tools ought to be conceived as prosthetic and all prosthetics are tools. I subsequently expanded on this idea in an unpublished paper that is available here. I end Addressing Ableism with the question of a non-ableist future and, if I were to revise this question today, I would ask about defending the labors and investments of an anti-ableist future as the minimum for laying claim to real-world disability justice.

As I wrote the book, ableism still came up as a misspelling. While there is significant, rigorous, and even exemplary progress with respect to critical work on disability made in other fields and disciplines, there are only a few of us philosophers writing philosophically about ableism as an academic priority, as essential to our academic agenda. Even when philosophers are discussing disability, it is often still a device to their working out of theory, rendered a token of inclusive scholarship. When departments are looking for new faculty, literacy in philosophy of disability is not requested, not desired.

When the job rejections came in stating, “you have qualifications similar to other faculty in our department,” I had to laugh because that is how little general professional regard there is in the discipline for those of us who work to broaden the interdisciplinarity of philosophy, who are deeply committed to the rigor and defense of the field among the other academic professions, yet could truly, transgressively, change the boundaries of the field for the better. 

Alex, I would be very interested to know how you, as a disabled graduate student, interpret the sorts of remarks that Jennifer made about philosophy in her interview, the critical claims that I make about philosophy in various contexts, and (for example) the critical insights that Johnathan Flowers makes about it on Twitter. Do these critical remarks upset you? Do they make you angry at us? Or, alternatively, do they help you understand the situation in which you find yourself?

Thank you, Shelley. I believe that the work of disabled philosophers and philosophers of disability draws out the—ultimately pernicious—bases of ableism in philosophical research, pedagogy, hiring, and elsewhere. Just as feminist consciousness-raising can be simultaneously epistemically valuable and emotionally distressing, my experience of recognizing the way that disability has structured my relationship to philosophy itself is bittersweet—but it certainly does not leave me angry with those of you who have made understanding my position possible! To put it in Jennifer’s terms, work like that which is embedded in the Dialogues on Disability interviews casts light on the ableist present which, as I take Jennifer’s point, we must understand in order to imagine anti-ablest futures.

I am very grateful for disabled philosophers who are working to denaturalize disability in philosophy like you, Shelley, and Jennifer, and Johnathan, as I think philosophers in general should be doing. As a graduate student, making claims about the sociology of philosophy feels hubristic. How could I, a novitiate, presume to have a view of the field or to understand enough about its disciplinary norms to call the field itself an academic bastion for ableism? And yet, disabled graduate students are well placed to recognize the ideology of academic ableism as they may both not yet be in its clutches and may experience so much of it first-hand. The work of philosophers of disability validates the experiences of disabled students who might otherwise feel too junior to speak about this ableism publicly, let alone to seek reparations for it. This work provides a ground (though not the only possible ground) for anti-ableist solidarity now, and the prospect of radically changing the discipline in the future. In this regard, I feel hopeful when I read the work of philosophers like yourself, Jennifer, and Johnathan—perhaps this is naive, but it helps. Hope, I think, is central to preventing useful anger from turning to cynicism.

This sentiment reminds of a comment that Alison Reiheld made in last year’s fifth anniversary installment of Dialogues on Disability. At the time, Shelley, Alison wrote:

Shelley, I won’t lie: doing better will be difficult. In philosophy, it will require relentless attention to educational opportunities from pre-school through graduate school, to the job expectations used to craft position descriptions, to the processes and discussions of hiring committees, to what topics and methods count as philosophy and which modes of cognition we see as philosophical, to the way we retain and promote faculty, to the very notion of “fit” between a job candidate and a department. Even if we dedicate ourselves only to these features—rather than also to innumerable others such as family and medical leave policies that make minority philosophers more vulnerable than their more privileged peers—we will find this work exhausting. It requires that we be willing to poke and prod our colleagues, to call them out and to call them in, and to respond well to being called out and called in, ourselves. We will have to trade off to give each other breaks in this work, as the best social justice labor does. Because this will be ongoing work.

As you wrap-up the sixth year of Dialogues on Disability, Shelley, I must tell you how much I appreciate your work with BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY and the contributions of disabled philosophers here. The Dialogues on Disability series simultaneously demonstrates the urgency of this work as well as the challenge of conducting it. Thank you for the chance to speak with you about these incredible interviews from the last year!

Alex, thank you so much for your extremely generous thoughts about the Dialogues on Disability series and the other work that we do on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY. I know that, on behalf of all the contributors to the blog, I can say how very gratifying it is to receive appreciation from someone who, given his positioning in philosophy, we especially want to represent and influence. Personally speaking, I have found it a pleasure to collaborate with you on both your own interview and this anniversary installment.

I also want to convey my deepest thanks to all my interviewees from the past year who shared with us their experiences and knowledges.

Finally, let me end this anniversary installment with thanks to everyone who has tuned in to Dialogues on Disability during the six years in which the series has thus far run.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to our remarks, ask questions about the interviews we’ve highlighted, 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, May 19th at 8 a.m. EST for the seventy-fourth 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.

3 Responses

  1. introvertica

    Congratulations on six years of Dialogues on Disability!
    This blog is informative and thought-provoking. It’s also a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to get a feel for the very broad range of questions in philosophy of disability, and the large number of areas in which philosophers of disability are working.

    Liked by 1 person

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