Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Maeve McKeown

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the eighty-eighth 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 and ancestral territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg, covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and directly adjacent to Haldimand Treaty territory. As a settler, I offer these interviews with respect for and in solidarity with Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and other colonized settler states who, for thousands of years, have held sacred the air, land, and water, as well as their inhabitants, and have protected them for centuries from the ravages of colonization and expropriation.

My guest today is Maeve McKeown. Maeve is an Assistant Professor of Political Theory at Campus Fryslân, an interdisciplinary faculty at the University of Groningen. Her work focuses on structural injustice, Iris Marion Young, reparations, and feminism. She is currently completing her first book of political theory which is entitled With Power Comes Responsibility: The Politics of Structural Injustice (Bloomsbury Academic). She has background in theatre, has worked in theatre companies, done scriptwriting and editing, and has co-authored two theatre books. Her other interests include indie and dance music, playing fiddle, piano and singing, festivals, yoga, literature and cats.

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Maeve! You were raised as a Catholic in a Catholic community of West Belfast. Some readers and listeners of this interview might not appreciate the significance of this social position. Therefore, I’d like to begin this interview by asking you to provide some details about your upbringing and how it led you to philosophy.

Thanks for this question, Shelley. I think it’s important, because even though philosophers and political theorists have talked a lot about positionality for the last twenty to thirty years, these discussions often relate specifically to the U.S. context. There is a general lack of recognition or knowledge about social positions in other societies, including Western societies that don’t conform to the norm. I can’t explain Northern Ireland’s whole one-hundred-year history in this short space, but I’ll highlight the basics.

Ireland was colonized by Britain, beginning as early as the twelfth century. Although there was an independence movement for centuries, it gained momentum in the early twentieth century and, after the Easter Rising in 1916 during World War One, independence looked inevitable. There was enormous pushback from the majority Protestant community in the North, who were descended from English and Scottish settlers. During the War of Independence in 1921, it was decided that Ireland should be partitioned, with the Republic of Ireland gaining independence and the North remaining part of Great Britain.

The Catholic minority (nationalist) community in the North faced state repression, with a lack of civil rights, including the denial of the right to hold certain occupations or the right to vote–because doing so depended on conditions that most Catholics didn’t meet–and, in any case, the electoral districts were gerrymandered to guarantee Protestant (unionist) control. In the 1960s, there was a Civil Rights movement, inspired by the U.S. movement. But things turned violent in the 1970s and Northern Ireland was plunged into a thirty-year civil war, known euphemistically as “The Troubles”. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Since then, there has been peace. Yet the two communities remain divided and the society is still segregated in terms of schools and often housing.

I was born in Belfast in 1985, in the midst of The Troubles. The society was deeply divided, schools were segregated, and politics was Green (nationalist) and Orange (unionist), rather than left and right. There were frequent bomb scares in the city, the British army patrolled the streets, and there were areas of the city that were not safe to enter. Our family was a bit unusual because my mum is Jewish and my dad is Catholic. Inter-marriage wasn’t common and the Jewish community was very small. Mum was raised atheist and didn’t have much family. So I and my siblings grew up as part of dad’s large Catholic family, even though we were also raised atheist. In Northern Ireland, “Catholic” is an ethno-political designation rather than necessarily a religious one. We went to a large state Catholic primary school. The area in which we grew up was a suburb but it was near some volatile estates: a bomb went off a few kilometers up the road from us when I was two (my siblings remember it) and there was paramilitary activity around. My parents moved us to the country when I was twelve.

The connection, for me, between my upbringing and philosophy is this: there was a pervasive sense of injustice in the Catholic community about the history of colonialism and repression. My consciousness was raised further when I went to a majority Protestant grammar school. (In Northern Ireland at the time, eleven-year-olds took an exam called the 11+; if you got an A, you went to grammar school, and if you got a B or less, you went to secondary school. I got an A and went to grammar school. The exam has since been abolished.) At this school, I got a reputation as both a Catholic and a communist, which caused problems, including some sectarian bullying.

I gained a reputation as a Catholic because I was openly anti-establishment and regularly asked tough questions about the political situation from the nationalist perspective. I gained a reputation as a communist because I got involved in left-wing activism at the age of fifteen, going to anti-sweatshop, alter-globalization, and reclaim the streets protests. I was also very active against the Iraq War. I have always been more of an internationalist than a nationalist. Although there was injustice at home, I was concerned with injustices like poverty, economic imperialism, and war abroad. None of this activity went down well in my conservative school! My parents tried to stop me from protesting when I was a teenager. Yet I later found out that they had met on a Civil Rights protest, which was far more dangerous than any protest that I went on!

[Description of photo below: a headshot of Maeve, who has long, dark, very curly hair and is wearing glasses. Her head is tilted slightly to her right and she is smiling slightly. Light to Maeve’s left is reflected off the left side of her face.]

You initially wanted to study theatre at university. Please describe the relation between your work in theatre and your work in philosophy.

My love for theatre started very young. I went to a local drama group from the age of five. We did weekly classes and an annual pantomime. When I was eighteen, I got into the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain (NYT) and this really boosted my confidence. I wanted to go to drama school and I auditioned in my gap year between school and uni.

But I flunked my final audition at a top drama school for a number of reasons, including the worry that it wasn’t the right choice for me and that I should really be studying politics. So, after a period of indecision and random jobs, I decided to take up a position to study Politics and International Relations at Manchester Uni. But theatre stayed in my life. I was in six plays at uni. A short play, which I wrote, was produced by NYT. I also did my dissertation on feminist and Marxist theatre, which, weirdly, is still one of my most-read pieces on academia.edu. My main interest at this point had shifted from acting to writing.

After uni, I worked for a political theatre company. There, I met the wonderful playwright Stephen Jeffreys, who became a great friend and mentor to me. I was the administrator for his Playwriting Masterclass for several years and, when he became ill with cancer, I edited his lectures into a book on playwriting. So, theatre is still a sub-strand of my life. I would like more time for it. Academia has been all consuming in recent years. I’m hoping that once I have tenure, I can carve out some more time for theatre, including, potentially, time doing more work on the relationship between political theory and theatre.

Maeve, your article “Structural Injustice” received a lot of attention when it was published last year and your article “The View from Below” recently went viral too. Please provide brief summaries of your arguments in these articles for readers and listeners of this interview who haven’t yet encountered them. What were the motivations for the articles?

The “Structural Injustice” article is an overview of the structural injustice literature to date, starting with Iris Marion Young and looking at critiques, amendments, and alternatives to her view. The article takes the structure of her final, posthumously-published book, Responsibility for Justice (2011), and addresses each topic in turn: what structural injustice is, responsibility for it, acting on political responsibility, avoiding responsibility, historical injustice, and some reflections on future directions for this literature.

Essentially, structural injustice is injustice that is built into social, economic, and political structures. In other words, structural injustice is the ordinary, background injustice against which we live our lives and is distinct from deliberate repression by individuals or states. When I first read Young’s 2004 article on structural injustice as an undergraduate student, I was completely blown away. The article theorized the motivations of the anti-sweatshop movement, which spoke to me because I had been involved in this movement, and it seemed to capture exactly what was going on. Apart from feminism, I found most political theory that I had encountered up to that point a bit irrelevant; but, Young’s work was spot on and corresponded to my thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a way that no other political theorist’s work had. It was reading Young that inspired me to become a political theorist.

My article “Structural Injustice” came about because I did my Ph.D. on Young’s theory of responsibility for structural injustice. Later, I presented at a conference in Munich in 2016 that Gillian Brock, an editor at Philosophy Compass, attended. She asked me to write the “Structural Injustice” article. I was a bit reticent at first because there wasn’t much secondary literature on the concept of structural injustice itself. Rather, everyone was writing about Young’s conception of responsibility in relation to structural injustice. Things are moving on from that now. I finally got round to writing the article on the subject in 2020. I’m glad that Gillian pushed me, because it turned out to be a great thing to do in the end.

My article “The View from Below” was also a commissioned piece. Johnny Lyons, an editor at Society, got in touch to ask if I would write an article on the state of contemporary political theory. The request came at a bad time: I was just about to move countries to take up my current job. But I knew exactly what I wanted to say and what I needed to say; so, I said “yes” and crammed the writing into my weekends. In this article, I argue that political theory is a game, whereby people try to score points by publishing in “top” journals, and the people with the most points win by getting the best jobs and the most prestige. This game is harming the material diversity of the field and stifling intellectual creativity, diversity, and dissent. The so-called top journals are interested in reproducing the status quo–liberal analytic Anglo-American political philosophy, to the exclusion and detriment of pretty much all other areas of political theory, including the kind of work that I do–which is in a no-man’s land between analytic and critical theory and is very applied–and other Continental approaches, feminist, decolonial, and Global South approaches, as well as work that is not written in English. Often these excluded methodologies and topics are pursued by people who are already marginalized.

I feel very strongly about this topic because I had been on the academic job market for six years before landing my current tenure-track post. I have applied for over 300 jobs and I have moved five times for jobs, sometimes to different countries. It has been exhausting, demoralizing, has crushed my confidence and belief in myself, damaged my relationships and personal life, and affected my health. The academic job market is brutal and cruel. Many people are trapped in this structural position of academic precarity and we internalize this arrangement as if we aren’t good enough, not smart enough, or failing in some way. I wanted to highlight that this state of affairs is a structural problem, which is why it’s connected to my structural injustice research.

It’s not unusual to become disillusioned with a profession–I previously experienced disillusion with theatre, which is hideously elitist. But the idealistic part of me expected better from political theory. We study power structures (at least some of us do) and injustice; so why are we allowing this structural injustice to perpetuate itself? I was stunned when “The View from Below” went viral. At the same time, however, I think lots of people had been waiting for someone to call a spade a spade and I did that in the article. The precariat recognized themselves in what I was saying. People on the fringes of political theory (and other academic disciplines), either because of who they are or the kind of work that they do, felt seen and heard. I got emails and tweets from other precariously-employed people with whom the article resonated deeply. Of course, I didn’t hear much from the professoriate, which I think speaks volumes.

To pick up on your last remarks about the profession, Maeve, please describe some of the problems with inaccessibility that you have confronted in philosophy and the university more widely.

I have epilepsy, which is a hidden disability. Because epilepsy is a hidden disability, people don’t look at me and think I’m disabled, which has benefits and drawbacks. The benefit is that I don’t, off the bat, experience explicit discrimination as a disabled person. The drawback is that, sometimes, I don’t get the recognition or support that I need. In fact, I didn’t identify myself as disabled for most of my life. I knew that I had health problems and that I experienced restrictions that other people don’t, such as not being able to drive or take baths or swim alone. But I didn’t use the label “disabled” until I became more aware of the philosophy of disability and disability rights movements.

I started having seizures when I was six-months old. I had approximately forty seizures as a child. They were all febrile convulsions; so the doctors thought I would grow out of it. It was when I had a seizure at 16 that I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I have tonic-clonic seizures–what used to be known as grand mal seizures. I black out, fall to the ground, and shake. The risks include status epilepticus–not coming out of the seizure for a long time–or injuries or death due to the fall. The main triggers for my seizures are sleep deprivation and stress.

For most of my youth, I ignored it. I refused to take medication because the side effects were terrible. I had several seizures during this period related to academic stresses. After a humiliating interview at Oxford for the undergraduate degree, I had a seizure and fell down an escalator, resulting in a head injury. I had a couple of seizures when I studied abroad on the Erasmus program in Spain, but I simply carried on and didn’t know that there was any support available. After failing to get Ph.D. funding during my Masters, I had a seizure and fell down another escalator, resulting in full-body bruising. This attitude of just carrying on and shouldering the burden myself became unsustainable during my Ph.D.

I spent the first year of my Ph.D. protesting. It was 2010-11, when the student movement against the rise in tuition fees erupted in the U.K., and we occupied our university, University College London, UCL, three times. I spent my time organizing, doing activist work, and writing and editing for a website, New Left Project. My supervisor was abroad that year and when she returned, she wasn’t impressed! She gave me three months to write a literature review. I worked very long hours, six days a week, for the three months and produced a literature review. A week later, a friend was visiting from home, we went clubbing and got drunk, and the day after I had a massive seizure and split my head open on the marble floor of Liverpool Street Station. I find that my seizures are often connected with the end of a period of prolonged stress, plus drinking and late nights never help. I overdid it on multiple fronts.

I was more-or-less laid up for two months. After that, I wrote to the university requesting an interruption of studies for six months and a back-dated interruption of studies for two months. They responded by asking me for £7,500–the equivalent of the grant payment for the two months when I wasn’t working and the next installment that had just been deposited in my bank account. I was flabbergasted. I asked for support from my faculty and the disability support office, but everyone said there was nothing that I could do. Eventually, I negotiated a settlement to pay back the money in installments from the rest of my grant.

When I returned to my Ph.D., I was back on anti-epileptic medication which had side effects, predominantly fatigue. There were days when I could not work because I was so incredibly tired. The medication kept my seizures mostly under control, but I hated the side effects. When I moved to Oxford for a post-doc, I asked my new neurologist if I could change medications. This is tricky because, in the U.K., there are only three anti-epileptic medications that can be prescribed to women of child-bearing age. I had already tried two, so there was only one left. The neurologist let me try it, which involved gradually coming off the current medication and introducing the new one.

Unfortunately, this process was a disaster. I had four seizures in a nine-month period; the highest frequency that I’ve ever had. The university did not help. Instead, I got called into my line manager’s office for an “informal” meeting. I arrived to the meeting alone, but someone was there to take minutes. I realized that there was nothing informal about the meeting. I was asked if I was “fit to do my job” and told to go on long-term sick leave. I said that this instruction didn’t make sense because I didn’t know if I would have more seizures and that I wouldn’t be able to pay rent. In response, I was told that my situation wasn’t the university’s problem. I was told that the line manager had written to my GP to get information about my case. However, the GP phoned me up to say that she had never received such a letter and that it seemed as if the university was trying to get rid of me.

I was unemployed for eight months after my Oxford postdoc, so I worked freelance as an editor. I went back on my old medication at an increased dose. In September 2019, I got a one-year lectureship at Cambridge. To be fair, Cambridge was the best university that I have been at in regards to disability. When I worked there, I had an occupational health assessment at the outset and they put some reasonable adjustments in place for me. My faculty administrator was aware of disability and put a blanket and pillow in my office in case I had a seizure and needed to sleep. She was very supportive, which demonstrates that having an individual in the faculty who takes disability seriously can make a real difference. Nevertheless, I supervised a disabled student at Cambridge who had a less good experience there.

While the faculty and disability support services were very good to me, the university was less so. The faculty wanted to renew my contract for another year; but, given COVID, the university refused because of the COVID recruitment freeze. Instead, they offered me a zero-hours contract with 50% of the previous year’s teaching at twelve percent of the income. I took this offer to the union and, with the help of an extremely diligent union rep in my faculty, I won and got a full-time contract, although for eight months, not the full academic year.

At this point, I decided it was time to leave academia. I had been treated like shit on many occasions, was tired and demoralized, and didn’t see the point anymore. But then I got the tenure-track job in Groningen. I was very unsure about moving aboard again because I would be moving away from my support network. Who would support me if I had a serious seizure or injury? I also didn’t know how to navigate the healthcare system. But I decided that I could give it a go and, if things went badly, I could still quit academia. Quitting is always an option, but a tenure-track job rarely comes along. So, here I am in Groningen.

So far, I haven’t figured out how disability support works here. It seems as if talking about disability and medical issues in Dutch workplaces is not allowed; rather, you deal with these things on your own time. I haven’t had an occupational health assessment or any conversations about reasonable adjustments. But I also simply have not had the time to investigate further. Between moving to a new country during COVID and Brexit, and teaching new courses for the first time, I have had no spare time whatsoever. Next year, I will look into this matter further. The university itself has not reached out or offered any support.

More generally, I would say that I struggled on the job market because I haven’t been as quick to publish as my peers. This slower pace is partly to do with the set-backs of having seizures, time needed to recover, as well as managing the condition and the side-effects of my medication. Disability is a time-suck and is not accounted for in the incredibly fast-paced world of contemporary academia. Disability is also mentally draining. There is the mental load of taking medication every day and keeping stocked up on meds. The need to have a healthy lifestyle and always get enough sleep to manage the condition. I worry about having a seizure during a lecture or a presentation: I once had a seizure in front of a group of seven-to-eleven-year-old drama students only moments before their final performance for their parents. I worry about having a seizure, being injured and getting way behind on my work, which is already difficult to keep on top of. All of this worry and stress is compounded by moving abroad and navigating a new healthcare system in a different language. I have found this really tough.

In these Dialogues on Disability interviews, Maeve, I like to provide interviewees with the opportunity to demonstrate their authority about ableism, disability, (in)accessibility, and other apparatuses of power by asking them to provide faculty and administrators with solutions to problems that have arisen for them and that they perceive others to experience. What changes with respect to disability and other axes of power do you want faculty and administrators to implement?

I think everyone knows that universities are no longer institutions designed to promote the public good of education, but rather are corporations governed by the profit motive. Employees in other industries have known for a long time that such a set up means that employees are disposable. The human cost of balancing the budget and maximizing profits is not considered. Academics have been privileged for a long time, having job security and autonomy at work, but these privileges have disappeared for most university faculty. The majority–around 70 percent of the workforce–are on precarious contracts; they are disposable because they are easily replaced; they have to teach whatever they are told to teach; and they have little to no time available for research.

So, to be completely honest, I am pessimistic about the possibilities of change for the better when it comes to people with disabilities. As I’ve experienced, and I’m sure many other disabled academics can attest to, we are perceived as even more of a burden than nondisabled staff, a drain on time and resources, and something to be avoided or disposed of.

If I’m going to put on my less cynical hat for a moment, I would suggest the following changes–and I’m mostly talking about U.K. academia here because it’s still the context that I know best. First, academics in the U.K. are judged by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), according to which they have to produce a certain number of publications in a five-year period. There should be dispensation for academics with disabilities, who might not be able to produce the same amount as nondisabled academics. The most recent REF did have some vaguely-worded accommodation for disability. But this statement needs to be clearer.

Second, there should be support for Ph.D. students, postdocs, and precariously-employed academics with disabilities. It’s very easy for talented people to be lost in the pipeline at this point due to disability and ill health. Of course, the problem for precariously-employed or unemployed academics is that they might not be anyone’s responsibility if they don’t have a university employer. There should be some kind of umbrella organization to support disabled people at this stage of their career. When I was sick during my Ph.D. and postdocs, there was nowhere to turn for advocacy or financial support. This situation needs to change.

Third, I believe there should be an ombudsperson to oversee academic recruitment processes. Employers think if they have a disabled candidate on the short-list, they’ve done their bit for diversity and can side-step actually employing the disabled candidate on the grounds that another person is “a better fit.” I think that discrimination is rife in recruitment processes. I have followed up on a few jobs for which I interviewed where a candidate who was far less qualified than me got the job, but they weren’t disabled and almost always had some sort of prior connection with the faculty. There should be an organization that one can fall back on to challenge unjust hiring processes.

A couple of positives: First, one unexpected benefit from the pandemic has been the proliferation of Zoom conferences. I know that lots of people hate them! But they are great for people with disabilities. Since my seizures are caused by stress and sleep deprivation, and because of the side effects of medication, I have to ration the number of conferences that I attend and sometimes I have to skip conference sessions to catch up on sleep. I have been able to participate in more conferences because of Zoom. This movement to online conferences is something that we should keep! Hybrid teaching also enables students with disabilities to participate if they can’t come to class in person–this is another great innovation. Another positive is that individuals who want to make a difference can. Whether it’s offering support or a listening ear, providing some support when needed, or doing some advocacy for disabled staff and students, it takes off some of the mental load to have individuals around who care and will help.

Maeve, how would you like to end this interview? Would you like to say anything more about something that we’ve discussed? Is there 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?

It has been an interesting experience doing this interview because, when I reflect on my experiences in academia as a disabled person and see it written down in black and white, I do wonder why I have stuck it out. Family and friends have been telling me for years to quit. I am a capable and talented person and could succeed in other industries. I guess my drive to study and theorize injustice keeps me going. I have been doing it my whole life, whether consciously or not, and feel compelled to keep doing it. I do not think that one must be an academic to do this work. But I do not know of any other way of getting paid to do it!

Some people along the way have supported me. A kind word or compliment here or there has made me believe that I was worthy and should keep going. I am very grateful to these people. And, if I quit, there will not be any Northern Irish, Jewish-Catholic, disabled women in political theory. So, I’m not going to let the bastards drive me out! This field is already far too male, Anglo-American, and nondisabled (and white, of course). It’s tough, but those of us who are different than the professional norms have to stay in to create space for the others who will come after us. That’s how it has always worked and we need to keep ploughing this path.

Some recommendations: if you’re interested in what it was like to grow up in Northern Ireland during the 90s, try the comedy Derry Girls. It’s hilarious and very relatable for people of my background and generation.

For the key text in the structural injustice literature, read Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

The best thing I have read on epilepsy is the graphic novel Epileptic, by David B., whose elder brother had epilepsy. While his brother’s condition was much more intense than mine, I still found lots to relate to–and since the book is a masterpiece in its own right, it’s well worth a read.

Maeve, thanks so much for this lively call to action. I have been energized by it and have learned a great deal from it. I look forward to your forthcoming book. Please let us know when it becomes available.

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

The entire Dialogues on Disability series is archived on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY here.


Please join me here again on Wednesday, August 17th for the eighty-ninth 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.

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