Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Christine Overall

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the seventy-fifth 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 exclusion, as well as personal and structural gaslighting in philosophy in particular and in academia more generally; resistance to ableism, racism, sexism, and other apparatuses of power; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy. You can support the continuation of the series by becoming a Patreon supporter of Dialogues on Disability here.

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 with the aim of decolonization.

My guest today is Christine Overall. Christine is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, and holds a University Research Chair, at Queen’s University, Kingston. Christine has published six monographs and five edited collections in the areas of feminist philosophy, procreative ethics and social policy, philosophy of religion, applied ethics, and philosophy of ageing. She enjoys writing philosophy, fiction, and creative non-fiction.

Welcome back to Dialogues on Disability, Christine! You and I did a wonderful interview together in March of 2016. Since that interview, you retired from your active faculty position at Queen’s. Nevertheless, you continue to be quite prolific, with publications in various journals and books, as well as presenting at the Philosophy, Disability, and Social Change conference in December. Not all retired philosophers take this approach. Please describe what retirement from your university job means to you and why it is important to you, as it seems to be, to stay connected to philosophy and developments in the field.

Thank you very much for inviting me back, Shelley. It’s a real pleasure and honour to be invited again to participate in Dialogues on Disability. I truly admire the variety in your interviews, and the insights they generate.

I should note, first, that the retirement I’m enjoying is a privilege compared to what most people, including probably most academics, get to experience. I have a defined benefit (DB) pension from Queen’s University, to which both the University and I contributed for many years. Only a small minority of Canadians have a DB pension—or any workplace pension at all.

To me, retirement means that I’m still researching, writing, and publishing, but I can pursue exactly the projects I choose, regardless of whether they conform to standard views of what philosophy is. Retirement also means the freedom from pressure to achieve in a very narrowly defined manner. Academic philosophy is a profession where nothing, it seems, is ever good enough, and the “star” system, for both students and faculty—which tends to be ageist, ableist, and classist—permeates all aspects of assessment, hiring, promotion, tenure, publication, grants, and awards.

I am now able to say no if I want or need to; and, in fact, I probably turn down at least half the requests and invitations that I receive. A lot of what happens in academia looks like busy work, or worse, outright irrationality. I’m thinking of the endless reports—refereeing, academic reviews, meetings, committees, and reference letters—and a teaching system in which classes are so large that it is impossible to get to know one’s students’ academic needs and interests, or to respond adequately to their written work. I can no longer be coopted into participating in any of these.

With more free time, and with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, it’s also been rewarding to spend more time reading just for the sheer pleasure of it and not just to achieve an immediate research goal. I’ve been immersing myself in memoirs and novels, particularly novels by writers of colour.

Now that I’m retired, I have the time to deepen my relationships with my adult children, and to develop my relationships with my grandsons. The four boys were all born within four years of each other, but each one is very different from the other. Of course, during the pandemic, it’s a challenge to maintain our connections, because none of them lives in Kingston. But thanks to Zoom and FaceTime, and based on their individual interests, I can read to them, and they read to me. We draw pictures together, play with logic puzzles, tell jokes, send messages, and do math.

It’s also a fascinating and enlightening opportunity for me to reflect on the cultures of childhood and childrearing, and the ways in which attitudes and behaviour toward children now differ, certainly from how I was raised, but also from how my children’s generation was raised.

[Description of image below: photo of Christine who is wearing sunglasses and sitting in a lawn chair on swimming-pool deck. Two of her grandsons sit in her lap. The three of them are smiling and wrapped in a big beach towel because they have just come out of the pool. Behind them is a fence and a children’s playground.]

In some of your recent research, Christine, you have continued to work on ageing and ageism, areas of research that we discussed in your previous interview. Please describe this newer research, as well as your recent work on anti-natalism.

I identify unequivocally as an old person. Sometimes I call myself a “geezer” or a “crone,” in the interests of reclaiming these stigmatizing words. I dislike the terms senior and senior citizen: first, because there are no “junior” citizens, and second, because I believe these terms are euphemisms designed to cover up a reality that is wrongly believed to be inherently unpleasant and regrettable.

I have a deep interest in the developing field of philosophy of ageing, and I have several papers published or forthcoming in this area, including:

“How Old is Old?” in The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Aging, edited by Geoffrey Scarre, which looks at the various ways in which oldness is defined, and the ways in which those concepts often function to magnify ageism and stereotypical images of ageing;

“Aging and the Loss of Social Presence,” in Aging in an Aging Society: Critical Reflections, edited by Iva Apostolova and Monique Lanoix, which shows that many prominent bioethicists have advocated a social norm whereby old people are expected, validated, or even required to withdraw from ordinary life activities and relationships. I argue that advocating the loss of social presence is not justified, for it benefits neither old people themselves nor those from whom they withdraw;

and “The Paradox of Human Finitude,” in Aging and Human Nature, edited by Claudia Bozzaro, Mark Schweda, and Michael Coors, which highlights the contrast between fatalists, who believe that we should not attempt to extend the human life span—either individually or collectively—and resistors, who believe that we should (or at least that it is permissible to) resist our temporal limits and try to prolong human life—either individually or as a matter of social and scientific policy. Hence there is a paradox, which is unresolvable: temporal finitude is both necessary to being human and yet also a regrettable aspect of being human, one that we constantly strive to overcome.

In “Is Ageing Good?,” forthcoming in The Ethics of Ageing, edited by Christopher Wareham for Cambridge University Press, I argue that there are several important reasons to suppose ageing can be good, and that it is important to affirm this goodness in the face of ageism that says ageing is nothing but decline and loss, and that old people are a social and familial burden.

To address your other question, I can tell your readers and listeners that I am now completing an invited paper for a journal edition on David Benatar’s anti-natalism. Benatar has famously argued that for every human being, it is better never to have been, and that therefore people have a duty not to have children. I criticized his ideas extensively in my book, Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate. Since then, I have become more convinced, on a visceral level, by one of his arguments for anti-natalism, namely, the argument from the sheer ubiquity and depth and variety of suffering.

At the same time, however, I cannot bring myself to regret having two children, nor to feel guilty about having had them. Indeed, I cannot bring myself to believe that I was morally wrong in creating my own two children, now adults, nor that my children were morally wrong in each having two children of their own. And, this is in spite of my intense awareness, magnified now that I’ve lived for seventy-two years, of the depth and extent of human (and animal) suffering.

Thus, the paper for the journal edition on Benatar’s anti-natalism explores whether and how, if at all, I can justify, dissolve, or reconcile the apparent tension between my awareness of the power of Benatar’s anti-natalist argument from suffering, and my belief that my children and their children—and indeed most other people—are not “better never to have been.”

In addition to your philosophical articles and books, Christine, you have started to write a memoir. The memoir revolves around your relationships with disabled relatives, including your Uncle Jack who was nonverbal and who, as you noted in your previous interview, remained at home, that is, was not institutionalized, as was the prescribed medical and social response to certain disabled people at the time and even continues to be so today. Please describe the motivation to write about these relationships in a memoir.

Over the course of my academic career, much of my philosophizing has been personal, in the sense that I’ve often been motivated by questions arising in my own life and experiences. For years, I wrote a column for our local paper, the Kingston Whig-Standard. Many pieces concerned philosophical and social issues that arose in my life: issues about being a daughter, being a mother, being a teacher, being a citizen. Out of the hundreds of columns, I collected about seventy of them in a book entitled, Thinking Like a Woman: Personal Life and Political Ideas.

Two of the books I’ve edited—Dying in Public: Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer and Pets and People: The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals—were legacy projects proposed and sketched out by dear friends—Sue Hendler and Jean Harvey, respectively—who asked me to take on the projects shortly before each of them died of cancer in the prime of life. That is, the books came into existence entirely because of my close personal and collegial relationship with each of these women.

Thus, much of what I’ve been writing and publishing, for much of my life, has been closely derived from my own life and experience.

A few years ago, my connection to my son inspired my paper, “Paradox in Practice: What We Can Learn about Love from Relationships between Parents and Young Adult Children,” which appears in New Philosophies of Love and Sex: Thinking through Desire, edited by Sarah LaChance Adams, Christopher M. Davidson, and Caroline R. Lindquist.

When I was asked to contribute to another anthology on the philosophy of love, I told the editors that one kind of love in which I’m especially interested these days is grandparental love. A search of the literature revealed that there seems to be only one philosophical paper ever published (in English, at any rate) on the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. My forthcoming paper, “Ain’t Love Grand? Looking at Grandparental Love,” which will appear in Philosophy of Love in the Past, Present and Future, edited by Natasha McKeever, Joe Saunders, and André Grahle, and forthcoming from Routledge later this year, will be the second philosophical treatment of the topic.

In my previous dialogue with you, Shelley, I talked of my Uncle Jack. I was at the time just beginning to realize what an important person he was in my life. As a baby, Jack was very ill, and as a child he was labelled (in the parlance of the time) “profoundly retarded.” He was born in 1928, and very unusually, despite doctors’ recommendations, my grandparents chose not to institutionalize him but to care for him at home with his three sisters.

In the last few years, I’ve come to recognize that I have, in addition, been significantly influenced by several other members of my family, from several generations, who were or are cognitively disabled, or perceived as such. I have just completed the first draft of my memoir, which examines the lives of these important people in my family, their roles in my life, and what I’ve tried to learn from them. Examining the experiences of these family members has helped me to see the historical variations in the medical and social responses to cognitively disabled people.

Reflecting on their experiences has also helped me to recognize my own internalized ableism and my complicity in the over-valuation of high intelligence—I was the first in my family to go to university, and the intensity of my parents’ desire for me to obtain a higher education was, I suspect, partly related to being part of a family that included people who could not possibly be admitted to a university. In addition, the belief that cognitive disability “ran in my family” has, at least covertly, affected some of my personal procreative decisions, as well as my concerns about reproductive ethics and social policy.

Your mother lives in a retirement residence in Toronto that has had restricted visitation during the pandemic. Christine, what connections do you draw between the devastation that has ensued in Ontario nursing homes and other congregate settings in which elders and younger disabled people like your Uncle Jack are placed, and ageism and ableism?

My mother has been a model for forging a conscious route through middle and old age. At age 85, she chose to put her name on a waiting list for her residence, and when she was almost 90, her name reached the top of the list. She truly loves and appreciates this residence and now, at 95, she’s grateful to be in a place where she is “safe.” This institution is run much better than others in Ontario, and it is no coincidence that it is a not-for-profit operation. However, it bears a lot of the hallmarks of institutional life: regimentation, isolation, lack of stimulation, and stringent rules imposed regardless of individual variations.

In phone calls with me during the pandemic, my mother sometimes remarks that she is “in prison”—a very nice, caring prison, but a prison, nonetheless. She has not been permitted to leave the grounds since March of 2020, nor can she have any visitors. One hundred percent of the residents have been vaccinated, but in part because the residence also has a long-term care wing, the place is run according to provincial regulations governing long-term care institutions in Ontario, regulations that continue to prohibit visitations.

The residence management has said, quite plainly, in a letter to residents and to family members who want to visit, that “It is important to remember, that when someone moves into [this institution], whether they are a long-term care resident or a retirement tenant, that they give up some of their individual freedoms for the good of the community they live in. … Many times, the good of the community supersedes individual rights” (my emphasis).

I am not at all convinced that my mother really signed away her individual rights and freedoms when she entered the residence. But it is an accurate description of what has been imposed upon her. Moreover, my mother and the other residents are paying a price for the freedoms of others. Although my mother can be compelled to remain in the residence and not have visitors, staff cannot be compelled to be vaccinated. About 20% of the staff have, for whatever reasons, chosen not to be vaccinated. Thus, when residents have tested positive, their infections have all come from staff and essential caregivers. Then the residents—who have faithfully done everything right, including wearing masks, staying two meters from others, and getting vaccinated—are forced to quarantine in their rooms for at least fourteen days.

In addition, long-term care patients are permitted to have visitors—essential caregivers—but residents such as my mother are not. Because she is judged to be relatively less disabled and more autonomous than long-term care patients, she does not have an essential caregiver. As a result, she is suffering from isolation during the pandemic even more than are the long-term care patients.

The residence is run on a model that values physical safety from COVID-19 above all else. At the beginning of the pandemic, when little was known about the virus, that was sensible. But after more than a year, people like my mother are paying the price in terms of lack of stimulation, lack of variation in their environment, loss of in-house activities, loss of connections with loved ones, and loss of physical touch. It’s as if their psychological, social, and cognitive wellbeing do not matter.

As I argued in my paper, “Ageism, Ableism, and the Power of the Double Bind,” for the Philosophy, Disability and Social Change online conference that you organized, Shelley, ageism is disabling: Ageist “institutions can cause ageing persons to acquire features or conditionsthat are seen as varying negatively from the norm, hence that become and are considered to be disabilities, and that often in addition involve unnecessary pain and suffering to the individuals who acquire them.” Old age is made into a liability in the way that other variances from “normal” (such as “disabilities”) often are.

In the conference paper, I also argued that one of the ways that ageism disables is by means of double binds, in which the individual loses no matter which option is chosen. My mother is in such a double bind. On the one hand, she could leave her residence and her city and come to live with me. Then she’d have freedom, family connections, more stimulation. But if she did so, she would not be allowed back into the residence, and would lose the home for which she waited for five years. So, both her choices are negative: she can either stay in the residence and suffer continued psychological, social, and cognitive deprivation; or she can leave, and lose the familiarity and physical safety of the place where she chose to live.

Christine, please explain your relationship with sound. In what ways does this relationship make the built environment and public realm, as currently organized, inaccessible to you? How can these elements be dismantled?

I have recently been diagnosed with hyperacusis, which is an unusual sensitivity to various kinds of sounds. For me, loud, continuous noises from which I can’t escape are particularly problematic; they magnify the anxiety I have felt throughout most of my life. Amplified music, large crowds, barking dogs, radios, televisions, slamming doors, construction sites, road repair, building construction, car and motorcycle engines, fire engines, ambulances, buses, trains, airplanes and airports, lawn mowers, snow blowers, leaf blowers, loud appliances, air conditioning systems, and ventilation systems are all painfully invasive to me.

Throughout my life, I have moved multiple times to try to escape from a noisy neighbourhood or a noisy building. In the days when I was taking exams or studying in libraries, my ears became irritated and sore from my constantly wedging ear plugs into them to try to reduce the noise. Some environments are just unmanageable at some times: the gym where I try to work out because of the loud music played, hotel rooms where the ventilation system is extra loud, and even my own apartment, where amplified music from the park next door makes the hot months hard to bear.

Until my diagnosis last summer, I had thought of hypersensitivity to sound as merely a character flaw, a personal weakness. That is, if I am suffering, it must be my fault; I should pull myself together, be strong, and stop feeling besieged. Well-meaning people have given me all sorts of advice, much of which implies that my illness is mine to correct and that if I don’t fix it, then the failure is also mine.

It has been very helpful for me to learn that I’m not the only person who has this sensitivity, and that I may either have been born with it or have acquired it through negative experiences during my early life. But, I’ve also learned that, as with most ways of being disabled, there is no social support for it. In general, people have little or no understanding of it. Most health-care professionals haven’t heard of it, even though they may have encountered the after-effects in patients who have it.

Having hyperacusis also reminds me that what constitutes the norm, or “normal,” can often be arbitrarily, capriciously, and inequably defined. Now that I no longer regard my sensitivity to sound as a failure or a weakness on my part, I’ve started to wonder, more than ever, why our social world is so noisy. Why should people like me have to adapt to this kind of poisoning of the environment? Why is loud, unremitting noise the norm? Why is being inured to noise the expectation? Why isn’t the norm one that permits a variety of people, in a variety of situations, to thrive? Why are quiet places more and more rare—and often expensive and difficult to access?

Should there not be a default assumption that quiet is preferable to loud? We know that extremely loud noises, especially if prolonged, affect hearing. But excessive noise is more than just annoying. Studies show that it’s linked to increased blood pressure and heart attacks. And it doesn’t just affect humans: the impact of ships’ engines on marine mammals has been well charted, but noise pollution also interferes with everything from finches’ foraging patterns to the reproduction cycles of crickets.

Hence, loud noises should be regarded as a kind of toxic contamination, just as pollutants of the air and water are. At the very least, continuous loud noise should be better regulated, if not outlawed. Those who enjoy loud continuous noise can get together in environments that do not infringe on those who do not. This is one way of decreasing the normalization of just one way of being in the world. That normalization, of course, causes the disablement of everyone who cannot endure or conform to it.

Christine, what would you like to say in closing this interview? Is there anything that we’ve discussed that you would like to expand upon? Would you like to recommend some resources of any kind about something that you’ve discussed in this interview?

For some piercing analyses of ageism, especially in North America, see the work of Margaret Morganroth Gullette. I also recommend the more informal work of Ashton Applewhite, including her book, This Chair Rocks, and her blog by the same name.

Writing memoir is an important way of thinking about one’s personal history and social context, as well as the related normative questions that arise in one’s life. A former student of mine has been very ill with a little-understood chronic disease. She still wants to write but struggles with the standard philosophical format. I recommended to her that she consider writing memoir, even in the brief form of a personal essay, as a way of reflecting upon her experiences and her illness, as well as potentially educating people, including medical professionals, about her situation. This is also a route to enlarging bioethicists’ understanding of the experiences of patients like her.

For anyone interested in writing memoir, I recommend an online course that I recently took, which is presented by Alison Wearing, a Canadian memoirist. I want to point out that I have no ties, financial or otherwise, to the course or the instructor, beyond the fact that I took the course, enjoyed it, and learned a great deal from it.

I also recommend reading the following memoirs:

Peter Andreas, Rebel Mother

Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?

Elspeth Cameron, No Previous Experience

Lorna Crozier, Through the Garden: A Love Story (With Cats)

Laura Cummings, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child

Lori Gottlieb, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

Ami McKay, Daughter of Family G

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story

Mary Rose O’Reilley, The Barn at the End of the World

Marguerite van Geldermalsen, Married to a Bedouin

Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle

I mentioned earlier that I’ve been enjoying reading novels, especially during the restricted circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. I enthusiastically recommend the following, all by writers of colour:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, The Purple Hisbiscus and Americanah

Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half

Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues

Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other

Kazuo Ishigura, Klara and the Sun

Shani Mootoo, Polar Vortex

Kiley Reid, Such a Fun Age

Ian Williams, Reproduction

I also referred to the philosophical writings of David Benatar. Although I disagree with many of his theories, his work explores some topics that are central to human existence and is always thought-provoking and scrupulously argued. Two of his books, especially, are worth reading: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence and The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions.

Christine, thank you so much for this wonderful collection of recommendations and for the references to your own work that you offered earlier in this interview, as well as for your forthright remarks throughout the interview.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Christine Overall’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 here again on Wednesday, July 21st for the seventy-sixth 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.

2 Responses

  1. David Beavan

    This was a wonderful interview. Since I am both disabled and aging it was very informative for me. On another note I have both the fortune and privilege to count Christine as one of my best friends. We have known each other since 1964. Christine is one of those rare individuals who knows from a very early age what they want to do with their life and then does it. In our high school yearbook she wrote “social and philosophical studies” and she has never wavered from that goal. She was very generous with recommended reading here but I would also suggest you read her own books. My favourite is “A Feminist 1” “Reflections from Academia,” which is basically an academic autobiography. Once again Shelley thank you for this.

    Liked by 2 people

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