About the Ableism that Conditions Your Criticisms of Zoom

Recently a very accomplished philosopher at an Ivy League university shared a post on Facebook about how they “hate” Zoom conferences and would no longer “pretend” otherwise. Because of the way that prestige bias operates in philosophy and the way that the combination of prestige bias and algorithms operates in the virtual reality of philosophy Facebook, literally hundreds of philosophers chimed in on the post by clicking on smiley face and heart emojis, as well adding to the post their comments about how Zoom conferences are “mind-numbing” (to quote one ableist phrase), “the worst,” etc.

I was disappointed to see the sheer number of feminist philosophers (some of whom want us to believe that they advance anti-ableism and disability justice in philosophy) who affirmed the post in one way or another. Their remarks included statements like: “I’m so done with it.” “I understand all the reasons about accessibility for disabled people, but. . . “. The fact that disabled philosophers might actually be reading these comments and feel alienated and hurt by them seems not to have hindered anyone from espousing them. When it comes to the apparatuses of disability and ableism, every philosopher (regardless of their “radical” views on gender, feminism, sexuality, etc.) is a good liberal who believes that people should be at liberty to utter any sentiment or philosophical position about disability that they wish. After all, isn’t that one of the lessons that bioethics courses teach them?

Some of the interlocutors on the Facebook post in question were disabled philosophers (largely un/underemployed) who wrote about how the upsurge in the use of Zoom throughout the pandemic has multiplied the opportunities for them to attend conferences with colleagues the world over. Others advocated for disabled philosophers and colleagues who are usually excluded from North American conferences due to expense, geographical location, personal convictions about responsible action with respect to climate change, and so on. Some publicly reported about how the online conferences that they recently attended included a variety of philosophers from various parts of the globe in ways that no in-person conference in which they have participated in the past has done.

I added my own contribution to the discussion, an excerpt from my Dialogues on Disability interview with Isaac Jiang from August of last year in which he discusses ableist and reactionary views about online teaching and conferences, including the ahistorical sentiment that face-to-face, in-person interactions are more “natural” than online interaction. You can find Isaac’s remarks in this regard and his entire fascinating interview here.

As a disabled philosopher who has benefitted greatly from the availability of online lectures, meetings, and conferences; has organized two editions of Philosophy, Disability and Social Change, a groundbreaking philosophy of disability conference that comprises primarily disabled philosophers; and has initiated plans for another edition of the Philosophy, Disability and Social Change conference to take place this December, I want to call out the ableism that underlies the persistent disparagement of Zoom and other online conferences in which philosophers (most of whom are nondisabled, all of whom are privileged) feel entitled to repeatedly engage.

I’ve done a considerable amount of work on accessibility at policy research institutes, in community organizing, through radio and other media, and in my university teaching and research. As the Facebook post in question made evident to me, the social permissibility of the very public proclamations of disdain for technologies and other mechanisms that make previously inaccessible philosophical contexts available to disabled philosophers is due in part to the word accessibility (and its derivatives) itself.

Since the profession and discipline of philosophy continue to largely exclude disabled faculty and philosophy of disability, there are few philosophers who have given any considered critical attention to (for instance) what the term accessibility signifies, that is, what it means, encompasses, and so on; what reconfiguring the architectural, institutional, and discursive spaces within which they conduct their work in ways that assume disabled people are present entails; and what the political, social, economic, epistemic, and metaphysical implications and commitments embedded in any given configuration of these spaces are.

Indeed, most employed nondisabled philosophers probably give the issue of accessibility little more time in their thinking than it takes them to complete the forms that their university requires to verify that given disabled students in their lecture hall are “disabled enough” to be afforded the provisions that they need to avail themselves of an equitable education; that is, few philosophers seem to have reflected upon the ontology of disability that this procedure assumes, the discretionary ethical principles on which it relies, nor the depoliticizing and disciplinary character of the entire set of practices that the corporate university has generated to limit the presence of disabled people in its spaces.

In short, the term accessibility and the ideals that it represents have been drained of much of the transformative potential to signify mechanisms of justice and equity for disabled people that they once embodied. Most philosophers (and academics in general), rather than appreciate that accessibility denotes desegregation for disabled people and learn about what the segregation of disabled people involves and desegregation of us entails, how they are reproduced, what forms they take, and so on, have been satisfied with the diluted representation of accessibility in administrative discourses about “EDI.” Insofar as philosophers are unwilling to interrogate their own assumptions about accessibility and the widespread segregation of disabled people that the idea of accessibility was originally introduced to undermine, they willingly participate in a systemic apparatus that ensures our continued social subordination, including our subordination and marginalization in philosophy.

When feminist philosophers and other philosophers decide that they won’t attend the online Philosophy, Disability and Social Change conferences, they seem to have concluded that their presence at the conferences won’t be more beneficial to them than, that is, won’t outweigh, the “discomfort” that another Zoom conference would make them endure; that none of the presenters will say anything that they need to know; that they have no obligations to demonstrate interest in what disabled philosophy faculty and students say; etc. In drawing these conclusions, feminist and other philosophers who avoid the conferences forego the acquisition of a considerable amount of knowledge about (among other things): the apparatus of disability, its co-production with other apparatuses of power, the most cutting-edge work in philosophy of disability that their disabled colleagues are writing and their disabled students want to learn, the institutional barriers that disabled students and faculty confront, and the forms that segregation of disabled people take.

To be sure, the videos of the Philosophy, Disability and Social Change conferences are posted to YouTube subsequent to the conferences themselves, enabling philosophers and others to view, at their own convenience, the presentations and the respective question and answer periods that ensued. Ironically, however, this rationale as a way to avoid Zoom conferences actually undermines arguments about the superiority of close interpersonal interaction that some of the critics of online philosophy conferences articulate. For much of the debate, discussion, recommendations, and other knowledge production that transpires at the Philosophy, Disability and Social Change conferences is done in the live Chat function of Zoom to which YouTube viewers are not privy. Since philosophers must by this point in the pandemic know that the Chat functions of Zoom conferences can play a significant role in the enhancement of the knowledge conveyed, exchanged, and incorporated at these online conferences, should I conclude that philosophers think that there is also no worthwhile knowledge produced in the live Chat function of our (online) Philosophy, Disability and Social Change conferences?

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Philosophers for Sustainability have created the Online Accessibility Pledge to increase the implementation of online conference options. You can both read about the rationale for the pledge and sign on to it here.

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