Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Amandine Catala

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the eightieth 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.

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. As a settler, I offer these interviews with respect and in solidarity with Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and other colonized settler states.

My guest today is Amandine Catala. Amandine is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), where she holds the Canada Research Chair on Epistemic Injustice and Agency. Amandine’s research focuses on epistemic injustice and agency in relation to a host of issues, including academia, neurodiversity, linguistic justice, migration, multiculturalism, racism, public deliberation, colonial memory, and think tanks. Amandine loves to ski, hike, go for long walks, practice yoga, read, and listen to podcasts. She also has an incorrigible sweet tooth.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Amandine! Please describe your background and how it led you to become a professional philosopher.

Thank you so much for having me, Shelley, and for creating this wonderful and important forum by disabled philosophers on philosophy and disability. I have been reading your Dialogues on Disability series for a long time and always find your interviews so interesting and illuminating. It’s a very special forum, and one that genuinely promotes epistemic justice by, among other things, amplifying the voices, perspectives, and experiences of disabled scholars and working toward the creation of more accurate understandings of disability.

I’m originally from Brussels, Belgium, and my first language is French. I was first introduced to philosophy in high school and remember being completely enthralled by Plato’s allegory of the cave. It opened up a whole new realm of reflection and questions, and I loved that. I also loved learning foreign languages, which seemed to broaden possibilities for communication and interaction with others everywhere, whether in Brussels, Europe, or around the globe. After graduating from high school, I spent a year in the United States in order to improve my English and experience a different part of the world before starting my post-secondary education.

When I returned to Belgium after my year in the U.S., I decided to major in translation and interpretation, figuring it would lead to more job opportunities, as Brussels hosts many international institutions. But a required philosophy course during my first year re-sparked my interest in philosophy, and I switched majors.

I did my B.A. and M.A. in philosophy at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). There, I was trained primarily in the history of philosophy and continental philosophy. One day, a professor mentioned in passing that there was an important domain within philosophy, analytic philosophy, which was taught mostly in anglophone departments. That piqued my interest. At the time, I was only planning to complete my B.A. and M.A. in philosophy at the ULB, and then to try to find a job, perhaps as a philosophy teacher in high school, because philosophy was taught as part of the ethics and/or the French curriculum in francophone Belgian high schools.

While studying at the ULB, I had heard about people who pursued a Ph.D. in philosophy; yet, somehow, it had not really registered as something that I might consider. As the relevant information about pursuing a Ph.D. was not readily advertised at my institution, it was not exactly clear to me what doing a Ph.D. involved, what doors it might open, or even how, concretely, to get started—for example, whether one had to be invited by a professor under whose supervision one would work, how one could get funding, etc. But then, a professor for whom I was a T.A. as an advanced undergraduate student asked me whether I had considered pursuing a Ph.D. I eventually decided that it would be interesting to do a Ph.D. at an English-speaking university.

So, I started looking into it, trying to find as much information as I could online, as I didn’t know anyone who had gone abroad for graduate study. Many Ph.D. programs in the U.S. offered full funding for five years if you were admitted, so I applied widely to U.S. universities. The application process—with standardized tests like the TOEFL and the GRE, not to mention the discovery of university and department rankings, none of which were a part of the academic landscape in Belgium—was a whole adventure onto itself, which involved having to order study materials from the U.S. to prepare for both tests, and then having to travel to the Netherlands to take both tests because, at the time, there were no ETS testing centers in Belgium.

I was admitted to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I had the privilege of working with Alison Jaggar, who was a wonderful adviser. It was thanks to Alison that I discovered feminist philosophy—about which I had known nothing!—as it wasn’t taught at the ULB at the time. ULB has only recently introduced a program in gender studies, so it is still relatively new. After obtaining my Ph.D. from CU-Boulder, I was a postdoctoral and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, the Australian National University, and the University of Louvain before joining the Philosophy Department at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

[Description of image below: Amandine, who has long dark hair, poses in front of a blank wall. She is looking directly into the shot with a pleased expression on her face.Sunlight streams into the space from a window to Amandine’s left.]

As you mentioned, Amandine, as student in philosophy at Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), you studied continental philosophy. But after one of your professors told you about an approach that was widely used in “English-speaking” philosophy—namely, analytic philosophy—you made a concerted effort to learn this approach. Describe the transition you made from an exclusive focus on continental philosophy to the way in which you currently do philosophy. What have been the intellectual, political, and other gains from the more expansive approach that you now take?

One thing that I think is worth noting to start is that the very distinction between continental and analytic philosophy is arguably a bit odd and not necessarily helpful. Someone once described the continental-analytic distinction as puzzling to the extent that the former refers to a geographical location and the latter to a method. This would be akin, the author went on to say, to sorting cars into two main categories: Italian and 4×4. That would be a somewhat strange and not entirely useful way to proceed with cars, and the same could be said regarding the continental-analytic distinction in philosophy.

That said, as a then-student discovering one philosophical tradition after the other, I noticed both differences and similarities between the two. As a novice, or philosopher-in-the-making, I especially came to appreciate the clarity of the writing and the transparency of the argumentation that tends to characterize the analytic side. However, authors and texts on both sides can be guilty of resorting to peremptory or “glitter-in-your-eyes” sorts of tone and of leaving controversial claims unexamined.

Aside from issues of style and posturing, however, what I ultimately took away from being exposed to and learning from both traditions is that there is interesting work and valuable insights to be found on both sides, and that it’s not necessarily warranted to disregard what might otherwise be relevant content simply because it’s presented in a different form than the one you are used to or happen to prefer, contrary to what the sheer (and often ignorant) hostility sometimes displayed toward continental philosophy might suggest.

But even more than the authors or texts I studied, what I noticed most were the differences in how philosophy was taught and practiced in Belgium and in the U.S., that is, the respective pedagogical cultures that I experienced while studying in both places.

For example, as an undergraduate at the ULB, all my courses were “ex-cathedra” lectures where the professor would speak uninterrupted for two hours while we frantically took notes. There would be one final written or oral exam at the end of the term, aptly called “restitution exams,” where you would “give back” in written or oral form much of the content you had learned and memorized from your lecture notes. Aside from the 100-page B.A. thesis that all of us had to write, there were no other papers to write, no class presentations, no class discussions, no opportunities to ask questions in class, no office hours, and no formal requirement to critically reflect upon or engage with the material, at least not until the M.A. level, if one chose to pursue an M.A.

As I was rather shy and bookish, eager to learn, and happy to absorb, reflect, and figure things out quietly on my own, this pedagogical format, overall, suited me. Still, I was impressed with the different pedagogical style that I discovered once I moved to the U.S. for my Ph.D. In particular, I liked how assessments were spread out throughout the term and took different forms, instead of one single exam at the end of the course. I liked the way that assignments encouraged critical reflection and independence of thought. And I liked the fact that professors were available by email or during office hours for questions and discussion. I was not always a fan of live, unstructured seminar discussions, where the ability to respond quickly or frequently sometimes seemed to be valued regardless of the substance or quality of the contribution—though the two are not mutually exclusive—and regardless of the fact that some of us experience social anxiety or prefer to take more time to think before we speak.

Overall, the process of pursuing a Ph.D. in analytic philosophy in the U.S. gave me a different outlook on philosophy. Because this process involved all at once different materials and methods, a different pedagogy, as well as different expectations for this further stage in graduate training, I came to view philosophy as a more active and engaged practice than what I had previously been exposed to; as a continuously developing field encompassing contemporary authors in addition to historical figures; and as an ongoing discussion with new questions and contributions.

Feminist philosophy, in particular, opened up an attractive new realm of reflection and investigation, one that felt both deeply relatable and important. To the extent that feminist philosophy (broadly construed) offers analytical frameworks and interpretive tools to identify, critique, and transform oppressive social configurations, as well as compels us to include the perspectives and concerns of minoritized groups, it can be viewed as a vector of epistemic justice.

Amandine, you currently work on a variety of topics, including migration, colonial memory, neurodiversity, epistemic injustice, and agency. Please give us a brief overview of the sort of work that you do in some of these areas. In particular, please describe your work on epistemic injustice and agency, for which you hold a Canada Research Chair (CRC).

As is often the case with feminist philosophy, critical race theory, or philosophy of disability, once you are introduced to the relevant concepts and frameworks, you start to vividly notice the pervasiveness of the phenomena that they track in the world, and you start to view the world and understand your position and experience in it differently: namely, politically, with both more awareness and more humility, depending on the various ways in which you lack or enjoy privilege. The same was true for me with the concept of epistemic injustice, which indeed simultaneously captures and expands on some of the insights that the aforementioned fields had previously articulated: namely, that credibility and intelligibility are not natural, apolitical qualities, but are instead the product of power relations, and that the extent to which we are (not) believed and understood—that is, the extent to which our input, perspectives, concerns, and experiences are (not) sought, validated, circulated, and recognized—often depends on our membership in certain social groups.

Once you understand credibility and intelligibility in this denaturalized and politicized manner, you start to realize that power-imbued norms and practices that produce undue imbalances in credibility or intelligibility are everywhere, including in the contexts of academic migration, colonial memory, and neurodiversity, to name but these three. How does the dominance of English in analytic philosophy affect the inclusion or exclusion of non-native English users and their philosophical insights and contributions? How does the erasure or distortion of colonialism in public space, discourse, and culture affect the way contemporary social justice claims voiced by BIPOC folks are received or dismissed by Whites? How do neurotypical norms of communication, interaction, or organization affect the marginalization and stigmatization of neurodivergent people, not only in the social sphere, but also in the educational and professional spheres, including the academic sphere?

In my work, I try to show that many contexts, norms, and practices create and maintain epistemic injustice, whether individual or structural. I have found that analyzing issues such as academic migration, colonial memory, or neurodiversity through the lens of epistemic injustice gives us a more precise and more complete understanding of these issues and of epistemic injustice. One sometimes encounters concerns that if a given concept—such as epistemic injustice—is taken to apply too broadly, this dilutes the substance of the concept to the point of rendering it meaningless or useless. While it certainly is important to make sure that the way we understand and apply concepts does track the relevant features that we aim to capture, it seems wrong to say that if a given concept’s extension gets too broad, then the concept becomes meaningless or useless, especially when these concepts aim to track injustice.

As the ever-growing literature on epistemic injustice has shown, the concept of epistemic injustice is a relevant and useful one across many different fields, in philosophy and beyond. It’s also important to keep in mind that epistemic injustice is a broad category that includes many different subcategories of epistemic injustice that each capture more specific features or cases of epistemic injustice. In other words, far from diluting its substance, the literature on epistemic injustice has enriched and nuanced its conceptualization. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that members of minoritized groups outside of academia often describe experiences or realities (e.g., not being consulted, not being taken seriously, or not being able to speak up due to their marginalized identities) that are effectively experiences that exemplify epistemic injustice, even if they are not explicitly described in these terms. Indeed, such first-person accounts of epistemic injustice formulated in laypeople’s terms often serve as the basis for philosophical theorizing about epistemic injustice.

Related to epistemic injustice, my work on epistemic agency aims to articulate a pluralist account of epistemic agency. One of my concerns has been that (what I’ve called) the logocentric focus in the literature on epistemic injustice—that is, the emphasis on rationality, propositional knowledge, and verbal modes of expression—has inadvertently suggested that some individuals (e.g., persons with severe intellectual disabilities) would not even qualify as epistemic agents and hence would not be considered proper subjects of epistemic justice, even though many of them are able to communicate. My pluralist approach of epistemic agency highlights that the epistemic realm of what we know is not limited to propositional knowledge, but rather also includes practical, tacit, embodied, and affective ways of knowing—a point that, again, has long been made by feminist, critical race, and disability theorists. A more complete and accurate conception of epistemic agency, therefore, ought to account for non-propositional as well as propositional knowledge—not least because non-propositional knowledge, such as practical, embodied, or affective knowing, is (stereo)typically associated with non-dominant groups, such as the working class, Blacks, or women. Discounting non-propositional knowledge and epistemic agency thus seems problematic, both empirically and politically.

Amandine, in a recent Zoom conference, you spoke about how you recently began to identify as autistic. How have this identity and your alliance with neurodiversity communities more generally shaped your teaching, research, and other aspects of your professional life?

Interestingly, what prompted me to look more closely at autism was my research on epistemic injustice in relation to minoritized minds, a category that includes cognitively disabled people, psychiatrized people, and autistic people. What little (I thought) that I had known about autism until then was limited to stereotypical representations of autism and to the DSM criteria—neither of which is particularly useful to appreciate what autism is: the former representations are partial at best and altogether inaccurate at worst; the latter criteria are framed in alienating, negative, and abstract terms that didn’t seem to track anything within my personal experience. So, I never saw autism as something that applied to me—that is, until I started reading first-person descriptions by autistics, in particular, autistic women, of their own experiences as autistics in a neurotypical world.

I started to recognize myself in what they were describing, so much so that it prompted me to seek a formal diagnosis. Coincidentally, having a background in feminist epistemology and philosophy of disability turned out to be very helpful in processing, welcoming, and integrating this newfound part of my identity. That said, many late-diagnosed autistic women and adults describe accessing a diagnosis as both a revelation and a relief. Things that you thought were random individual quirks or personal shortcomings actually turn out to be not only a part of many other people’s experiences, but also explained in large part by the fact that neuronormative environments, by definition, exclude some of the profiles that make up neurodiversity, like autism. In addition to the tremendous gains in self-knowledge that come with late-diagnosis, it’s important to note that being late-diagnosed also means having to unlearn a lot of internalized (neuro)ableism, which is a considerable challenge in the context of philosophy and academia. And, of course, you are still autistic in a neurotypical world, with all the difficulties that this subjectivity brings because of neurotypical privilege and ignorance.

This experience as a late-diagnosed autistic woman is far from unusual. It is common for autistic women to remain undiagnosed for a long time. This delayed (or altogether missed) diagnosis for autistic women highlights several problems, all of which inform my recent and current research on epistemic injustice in relation to neurodiversity: First, the inadequacy of current diagnostic criteria and metrics that neglect the ways that autistic traits tend to manifest in women. Second, there is an insufficient flow of information between researchers, who have repeatedly shown that autism presents differently in women, and clinicians and other professionals, some of whom continue to mistakenly believe that autism concerns only little boys, or that one cannot be autistic if one has friends, is in a relationship, has a job, or can make eye-contact. Third, the serious disconnect between first- and third-person accounts of what autism is—a manifestation of power and privilege that, of course, has long been criticized more generally by disability and neurodiversity self-advocates and movements.

This last point in particular points to the need to pay attention to the experiences, perspectives, and claims of autistics, including in academia. As is the case in society more generally, most norms and practices in academia are neuronormative, whether these norms and practices concern oral participation in class, pace and productivity, seeming smart, or networking and socializing. As a result, a sense of not fitting in, not belonging, isolation, and self-doubt can be a common experience for autistics in general, including in academia. These consequences of neuronormativity can also be compounded by intersectional factors such as race, class, physical disability, gender identity, language, national origin, and immigration status.

To illustrate neuronormativity in the context of teaching and learning, you might think of pedagogical methods such as oral presentations, working in small groups, and partaking in live class discussions; or common criteria for academic excellence such as the ability to think and respond quickly in order to be viewed as bright; or the requirement to be a full-time student with a stellar GPA in order to be considered for prizes or scholarships; or the range of social activities deemed to qualify students as “good citizens” in their department, such as leading the Philosophy Club, socializing at colloquium talks or other events, or building a rapport with teachers by regularly going to their office hours. While these pedagogical methods, criteria for academic excellence, and social activities can be useful in training, assessing, or getting to know our students, they can also, in effect, unintentionally exclude, penalize, or discriminate against autistic students, who may find it difficult to navigate and excel in neuronormative academic environments made by and for neurotypicals without much, if any, consideration for autistics.

For instance, requiring frequent participation in unstructured, live class discussions or in small-group activities can create difficulties for autistic students who might experience social anxiety or who might need or prefer to take more time to process and think about new material or ideas. It can,therefore, be beneficial to offer alternative ways to contribute to discussions and activities, such as turning in a short reaction paper after each class or using asynchronous means of participation such as a class online forum instead of (or in addition to) synchronous exchanges. Similarly, vague instructions for assignments can be a major hurdle for autistic students. Making instructions as specific, concrete, and step-by-step as possible can be tremendously helpful. Some flexibility with deadlines can also help with delays that might result from difficulties with executive function—e.g., breaking down a big task into smaller tasks, or accurately estimating how much time a task takes—or with autistic burnout, that is, the exhaustion that results from being autistic in a world not built for you.

In general, the best way to devise and integrate adaptive or inclusive measures is to ask students themselves. Given that no two autistic students are alike, they may and likely will have different needs, strengths, and weaknesses. It can, therefore, be useful to ask them to discuss with you (and/or the relevant service or office) what adjustments or arrangements would be most conducive to their success in a way that is compatible with learning objectives. Letting students know at the outset of a course (and reminding them throughout) that you are sensitive to their needs to help them succeed and that it is safe to talk to you can make a big difference.

Additionally, it’s important to consider: Are social activities taking place in loud, busy, brightly lit, or excessively air-conditioned spaces that can easily cause sensory overload and make it difficult to hear, follow, or contribute to a conversation? Is there a policy against laptops in the classroom when they can be an accessibility tool, the appropriate use of which can be essential to staying focused or taking good notes? Are there mentorship or networking programs to provide support and resources to navigate unfamiliar environments or new processes and situations in order to facilitate recruitment (diversity) and retention (inclusion)? Are prizes, scholarships, and other awards or accolades rewarding linear trajectories, international experience, or productivity rates that track privilege rather than merit? Are evaluation procedures set up in a way that forces individuals to choose between the right to be assessed fairly and the right to privacy? Are there enforced guarantees that disclosure will be safe and confidential, will lead to appropriate adaptive measures, and will not result in discrimination or psychological harassment?

As the questions that I posed above illustrate, so many aspects of academic life should be rethought and redesigned by and with autistics and other neurodivergent and minoritized university students, faculty, researchers, and staff in order to make academic life more inclusive of them.

You have pointed out to me that although your biography seems linear and coherent, your academic life has been fraught with difficulties, especially due to neuronormativity, sexism, and elitism that you have confronted. How would you describe these experiences? How did you get through them?

Much like people’s profiles and feeds on social media, our short bios or CVs are tailored for particular contexts and purposes. As such, they are inevitably curated and selective. It’s easy to forget this selective character. In this sense, looking solely at someone’s short bio or CV can be somewhat misleading. We usually list only our successes and accolades, not our many other attempts or rejections. For any one of the former, that is, successes, that makes it onto our CVs, there are many more of the latter, rejections and failed attempts, that don’t. We all have ghost CVs with countless things that didn’t work out.

Even the things that did work out often required much struggle, perseverance, and resilience. But none of this is readily perceptible on a CV, which focuses on fruitful outcomes and leaves out fruitless ones, as well as the more or less just or unjust processes and climates that led to either. I think it’s important to highlight this selectivity for anyone starting out in academia, especially for members of minoritized groups, who, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, may be made to feel unwelcome in academia. Perhaps knowing that it also wasn’t always easy for other members of minoritized groups who have nonetheless succeeded or stayed in academia against the odds can be a source of encouragement, motivation, and determination, all of which are important for retention and inclusion. So perhaps transparency and humility can help to bolster the “human” in the “humanities.”

At this stage in my career, I feel it’s important to underline that my path, while extremely fortunate in so many respects for which I am deeply grateful, was also fraught with difficulties: being a disabled woman in philosophy, being undiagnosed as autistic until relatively recently, and facing an all-too-often neuronormative, elitist, epistemically unjust academic world, in addition to navigating multiple new and foreign institutions and countries—all of this has often created a profound sense of confusion, dissonance, disorientation, and doubt, to the point where, at one time, I considered leaving academia. Besides the unwavering support of my partner, who has been on this academic journey with me since the beginning, I have also benefitted from the support of wonderful people who generously stepped up or went out of their way to help me along this path. It’s also been tremendously helpful and uplifting to find fellow autistics and allies in various contexts. Finally, switching into “action mode” or engaging in self-advocacy—e.g., by raising awareness about (neuro)ableism in academia and by building resources with and for autistics—has been helpful to persevere in the face of pervasive individual and structural microaggressions and ignorant indifference or hostility toward autistics and neurodiversity.

Amandine, how would you like to end this interview? Would you like to say anything more about something that we’ve discussed or anything that you would like to talk about that we haven’t touched upon? Do you want to recommend any articles or other materials related to something you’ve mentioned in this interview?

Thank you so much, Shelley, for inviting me to be a part of this broader and ongoing conversation on philosophy and disability. There is so much good academic and non-academic material that would be relevant. In keeping with the emphasis on first-person perspectives on autism, including non-propositional modes of communication and self-advocacy, I’d like to recommend the graphic novel Invisible Differences by Julie Dachez and Mademoiselle Caroline, as well as the webcomics Aspigurl and Lily Spectrum.

Amandine, thank you so much for this incredibly interesting discussion of your educational background and influences, as well as your research. I’m sure that everyone who encounters this interview will learn a great deal from it.

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

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Please join me here again on Wednesday, December 15th for the eighty-first 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. […] “I never saw autism as something that applied to me—that is, until I started reading first-perso… — Amandine Catala (UQAM) interviewed about her research and her life as a late-diagnosed autistic woman in philosophy […]

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