Dialogues on Disability: Shelley Tremain Interviews Robert Chapman

Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the ninety-second 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 ancestral territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabeg nations. The territory was the subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations around the Great Lakes. 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 land, water, and air, as well as their inhabitants and who, for centuries, have protected them from the ravages of colonialism and expropriation.

My guest today is Robert Chapman who is currently a Senior Lecturer in Education at Sheffield Hallam University. Robert obtained their doctorate on the concept of autistic thriving from the University of Essex in 2018. They work primarily on philosophy of disability–especially neurodiversity–and blog on neurodiversity politics. They are currently writing a book on neurodiversity and capitalism and another book that provides a short introduction to the neurodiversity movement. They like to spend time with their cat, Marcel.  

Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Robert! Please tell us about your background and how it led to your career in philosophy.

I grew up poor, moving around a lot, initially living in squats and council estates in London, then living elsewhere in England. I struggled to process information at school and found it very chaotic and stressful; so, I rarely went. Thankfully, I had a few good friends and a brother. When I was fifteen, I dropped out of school and left home to live at friends’ houses and then on the streets. I finally went to the local council offices to ask to go into foster care, mainly because it was snowing, and I was struggling to keep warm.

Having a loving and supportive foster family meant that I was able to think about going to university for the first time. After taking some access courses to get in, I ended up studying philosophy at the University of Southampton. I was initially attracted to philosophy because I often found it hard to understand the world: it was very chaotic and unclear. So, asking fundamental questions about the nature of things seemed like a good way to begin to understand it.

Initially, I found the existentialist thinkers and the history of European philosophy most interesting. I was also interested in Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, since I think that they too are seeking to come to terms with a chaotic world, in their own ways. While studying these thinkers, I became more interested in disability and mental health; so, I ended up going more in that direction. Thankfully, I was able to get a Masters scholarship and, subsequently, a Ph.D. scholarship; so, I was able to pursue my studies at the postgraduate level.

I finally obtained my doctorate in 2018. Since then, I have worked in three temporary teaching or research roles. I am currently lecturing at Sheffield Hallam University, which I really like, although the role is temporary, so I am not sure what I will be doing next year.

[Description of photo below: Robert on holiday in Lisbon, Portugal. They are standing in front of an old wooden door with peeling paint and iron bars wearing a backpack, shorts, a brimmed cap, and a t-shirt that bears the image of a walking hotdog and bun wearing a top-hat and holding a cane]

Robert, you have played a formative role in the expansion and clarification of the theoretical bases of the neurodiversity movement. Please describe your motivation to produce work on neurodiversity and some of the key ideas and concepts that you have addressed and illuminated.

I first became interested in neurodiversity theory for the personal reason that I am autistic and Mad. When I was doing my Masters in 2012, my teacher Tom O’Shea had suggested some reading on neurodiversity after I wrote an essay on autistic flourishing. Reading up on neurodiversity, I found a lot more nuance in the blogs of neurodivergent activists than I did in the few philosophy articles that had discussed neurodiversity as theory. So, I thought that neurodiversity theory would be worth exploring in a more systematic way. I thought “neurodiversity” was an interesting and significant concept–different to the anti-psychiatry tradition with which I was already familiar–that had nonetheless been overlooked or dismissed in philosophy.

I applied to do a Ph.D on the ethics of autism, starting in 2013, because I was so angry at the existing literature on the subject. At the time, most of the literature was from bioethicists about how autistic individuals lacked personhood or were inherently unable to thrive. I decided to challenge this work by looking at how autism and conceptions of the good life and personhood had been constructed. I argued that each of these constructs had been determined by neurotypical biases and assumptions, leading to a kind of conceptual lacuna whereby it became difficult for most people to even conceive of what I called “thriving autistic personhood.” I found the neurodiversity perspective helpful for analyzing this lacuna, since it did not arrive with presuppositions about human nature or thriving. I published a few articles based on the thesis, including a recent article on autistic thriving and epistemic injustice in Journal of Social Philosophy, which I co-authored with my friend Havi Carel.

Soon after beginning my doctorate, I began to think neurodiversity theory was interesting for an additional reason. By then, I had for some time been interested in critical mental health work, which mainly stemmed from the anti-psychiatry tradition. I thought that neurodiversity theory provided an alternative approach there too. I think that the anti-psychiatry movement brought some good ideas into discourse; yet it also introduced some very reactionary ideas. Because of the latter ideas, a lot of critical psychiatry today is about emphasizing how people with mental health diagnoses are not “really” disabled–not like “really” disabled people–because mental health is a political issue rather than a medical issue.

For me, however, all issues concerning health and disability are political issues; so, that is a false binary. And I felt that approaches that seek to separate the “normal” mentally unwell people from the “really” disabled are engaged in a kind of respectability politics. I see the neurodiversity approach as providing an alternative path, one that can connect radical mental health politics with the broader disabled people’s movement. A neurodiversity approach affirms the fact and reality of disablement, allowing for solidarity with all other disabled people and a politics of collective liberation. I have turned towards this approach in my more recent work, including in an article titled “A Critique of Critical Psychiatry,” which is coming out soon.

You are currently completing a book that explores the aims and potentialities of a Marxist approach to neurodiversity. I am sure that our readers and listeners would love to be apprised of the central tenets and arguments of the book and why you have written it.

In my book–which will be published next year with my favorite independent, radical press–I seek to provide a more radical approach to neurodiversity history, theory, and praxis. Until now, most neurodiversity advocacy, starting with Judy Singer’s seminal 1998 thesis, has been written within a liberal political framework, focusing on reform, rights, and justice. Although some of my previous work was in line with that framework and discourse, I have now developed an alternative approach that I call “Neurodivergent Marxism,” which shows, ultimately, how the primary problem with respect to neurodivergence is capitalism itself. While many people already think in some vague sense that capitalism’s relation to neurodiversity is the central problem for neurodiversity theory–capitalism seems to taint everything, after all–I wanted to develop a historical analysis to examine what this problem might mean in more detail. As such, I hope that the book will help to reorient neurodiversity theory and praxis in line with other anti-capitalist struggles and away from an orientation around liberal identity politics.

While Marx has always been an influence of mine, I did not initially mean to write a Marxist book. I was originally using a more Foucauldian framework. When I started, I was investigating the rise of what autistic scholar Nick Walker has termed the “pathology paradigm,” which she associates with an overly restrictive conception of mental “normality.” For Walker, the point of the neurodiversity movement is to motivate a paradigm shift from the dominant pathology paradigm to the emerging neurodiversity paradigm. The hope is that this shift will help liberate neurodivergent people from oppressive notions of normality that are used to order, study, control, and make sense of so much of our social lives. Initially, I wanted to trace a history of the pathology paradigm to gain a better understanding of what overcoming it would really mean and require and, in turn, to propose a version of the neurodiversity paradigm that should help reorient our knowledge production, policy, and practice.

While I still agree with Walker on all these insights, what I found at each point in my research–and I have worked on this project for some years now–was that conceptions of mental normality, shifts in scientific knowledge production, and the emergence of this paradigm, largely mirrored developments in the capitalist mode of production. To give just one example, as we shifted away from manual labour and more towards emotional labour and then cognitive labour during the twentieth century, neuronormativity restricted in line with the new needs of the economy. This “new normal” meant that more people became disabled, and, in addition, certain diagnoses expanded to account for this increase. Of course, the causal relation is a lot more complex than that, but ultimately, neuronormativity seems to be primarily structured by the economy, albeit mixed in with norms relating to race, gender, sexuality, and so forth.

This realization led me to want to emphasize how there will be no neurodivergent liberation without changing the deep structures of society. So, I agree that we need to end the pathology paradigm; however, I think this end requires an overhaul of the whole system. We cannot bring about this end either by changing how we think and act or by making incremental changes in policy or law. Thus, I think we need a more radical neurodiversity theory and praxis, one more in line with approaches from the Black Radical tradition, the Marxist traditions, and so forth.

Considering all this, I decided that a Marxian framework would fit my findings–help model them in a coherent and elegant way–and enable me to develop theory for anti-capitalist praxis. This shift in framing has in turn helped me trace these issues back to quite fundamental tendencies in capitalism, which help explain how rises in mental illness and disablement relate to what I see as an as-yet unidentified contradiction in the capitalist mode of production, which traps each of us between alienation and disablement; that is, we are each in a catch-22 situation where either we are instrumentally valuable and thus can be exploited and alienated; or we are not instrumentally valuable and thus face disablement and discrimination. Either way, it’s not a good situation for most of us, however close to the neurotypical ideal that we might sit. By showing how this predicament has developed historically, that is, out of quite fundamental dispositions of capitalism, I hope to gain a better understanding of what neurodivergent liberation would require.

Robert, how have your personal experiences with respect to class and your identification as a nonbinary person shaped your experiences as an autistic person?

I think that class and neurodivergent disability are intimately intertwined. For me, autism and my other forms of neurodivergence are disabilities. By contrast, I have often noticed that people with more money, people who have had a lot of money and support growing up, are more likely to see their neurodivergence as a “superpower.” You know, Elon Musk-types, but also just some middle-class white guys more generally. To be clear, I do think that it is true that some strengths can come with a variety of forms of neurodivergence. I also think that it is important to reclaim our diagnoses in more positive ways, since they are often framed only through deficit models. However, whether traits manifest as strengths or limitations is often a matter of whether you have money and other kinds of support. Strength is always both relational and political rather than an intrinsic attribute. And that is where the intersection with class becomes most salient.

When it comes to social class, this intersection relates to what I call “cognitive or developmental outsourcing.” This outsourcing can involve anything from hiring a tutor who helps with education, to employing a personal assistant to help you plan things, to using technology (apps, a laptop where you can leave a lot of apps open without it dying, etc.), all of which outsourcing of activity lets you outsource your cognitive tasks. You can also outsource aspects of emotional processing to a therapist, sex worker, or so forth, if you have the money. All this outsourcing then frees up your cognitive and emotional energies, allowing you to focus on whatever it is that you are good at. It also helps you learn more quickly, to grow in certain ways, and thus for your “superpowers” to manifest. In short, the more cognitive, emotional, and developmental tasks you outsource, the more energy you have left to focus on other things.

I did not have any of these things growing up which, I think, for me, initially made my disablement a lot worse than it might have been. Following the completion of my Ph.D. in 2018, and aside from a few months of being unemployed on a few occasions, I have been paid properly for my teaching and research. So, I have been able to earn enough to live above the poverty line for the first time in my life, and to live relatively comfortably. I have suddenly been able to access a whole lot more technology for learning, and thus learn at a much quicker rate, than I ever could before. For instance, I can now constantly buy audiobooks, which I find a lot easier to digest than the written word, and I also have a good laptop and phone, headphones, etc. This expanded access to tools for learning is different than the luxury of paying for a therapist, tutors, or a personal assistant, but it has changed my life and my ability, radically.

Saying that, while it has been nice to have more support, my ideal is not to work my way up so that I can begin to access cognitive outsourcing myself while leaving the system intact. Cognitive outsourcing is a form of exploitation, much like everything else under capitalism, which reinforces the various power relations that sustain cognitive domination. At present, cognitive outsourcing is often necessary for people at the individual level. However, at least until capitalism destroys itself, I think that we need to work toward some kind of cognitive and emotional mutual aid to take its place. In fact, I think that this sort of mutual aid already happens a lot; for instance, a lot of Mad and neurodivergent-led alternatives to psychiatry can be seen as forms of cognitive and emotional mutual aid. We need more of this collective action; and we need to clarify it as a political project. Since we live in an age where so much labour is cognitive or emotional, this kind of cognitive mutual aid is vital.

With respect to my identification as nonbinary, I think this identification, too, is intimately linked to neurodivergence. Consider, for instance, how autism was first pathologized in Nazi-annexed Austria, where Hans Asperger began to notice boys who manifested similar problems to each other, enough for him to baptize them with a name–“autistic psychopaths.” I think that those boys fell outside the new Nazi gender norms, where boys were expected to show a hyper-masculine, soldier mentality. These norms related to the economy, too, since everything had to be directed towards the war effort. Asperger’s patients tended to be more solitary and interested in philosophical pursuits, so they showed up as a problem in the context of the war economy.

In this regard, and in others, when we look at how our disability classifications function, grow, and shift, it is often in ways that defy the gender norms of the time and place. I thus see cishetnormativity as closely bound up with neuronormativity and, in turn, with the political economy and economic needs of a given time and place.

It was thinking about these relations and associations over many years that helped me to realise that I had never really fit male norms, had always found them oppressive, and have never really had any inner sense of “maleness” or identity with the group. This realization led me to embrace nonbinary being, which I found helped me relate in ways that were ultimately better both for me and for others. Over the past years, this recognition of myself as nonbinary has started an ongoing process of change since I regard gender in relational terms rather than as about individual identity. Gender always relates to other people, as well as a social and material context.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the neurodiversity movement, including on social media? Has the pandemic compelled you to reconsider any of your assumptions or practices with respect to neurodiversity?

I am not sure how the pandemic has impacted the movement as a whole. It’s too early to say. But I do think that long COVID is, or can be, a form of neurodivergence, insofar as it usually involves brain fog, executive functioning problems, and so forth. At least, that has been my ongoing experience of long COVID, which I have found significantly disabling.

At the moment, most of the discourse around long COVID frames it as a medical issue, which is understandable given that many people with long COVID had no prior familiarity with disability politics. Now they are suddenly disabled, which is something that they associate with medicine. So far, there has been little by way of effective medical treatment. Here, then, is where I think that the social model of disability and similar approaches will be useful.

My hope is that people who were previously neurotypical and who have been impacted by long COVID may in time find the frameworks of neurodiversity and concepts such as disability pride and the social model helpful for reorientating, organizing, and so forth. I hope that they will be welcomed into disabled, Mad, and neurodivergent spaces, where those of us with long COVID can collectively develop our own understanding and analysis of what this moment means to us and what we can do with it.

Another thing that long COVID does is make it clear how impairment–not just disablement–is political. The fact that so many people now have these new impairments is a result of political choices of governments, workplaces, and so forth, as well as, in part, the effect of our political system and its need for constant production. Of course, disability studies scholars and disability activists have, for a long time, known that impairment is political; however, I think that now the political character of impairment is clearer to a great many other people.

Robert, how would you like to end this interview? Would you like to say anything more about something that we have discussed? Is there anything that you would like to talk about that we have not touched upon? Do you want to recommend any articles or other materials related to something you have mentioned in this interview?

If anyone would like to investigate my work at greater length, I would recommend the following: First, they can see my recent article “Towards Neurodivergent Marxism” in which I introduce neurodivergent Marxism. Second, they can look at a longer interview about my work on the philosophy of neurodiversity that appeared in Psychiatric Times. Finally, I recommend the recent article that I previously mentioned, which I co-authored with Havi Carel. Again, the article, which appears in Journal of Social Philosophy, considers autism, epistemic injustice, and the good human life. I will be announcing my book publisher and the book’s title soon, probably on Twitter or wherever; so, I encourage readers and listeners of this interview to look out for that announcement.

I would also like to mention some books that I am currently reading, am really excited about, and want others to read. Most notable are these: Health Communism: A Surplus Manifesto by Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant; Black Disability Politics by Sami Schalk; and Continental Philosophy of Psychiatry: The Lure of Madness by Alastair Morgan. Each of these books does what it promises to do in its title, and all are exceptionally good; so please look them up if the title of any of them sounds appealing.

Finally, I would like to thank you for inviting me to be interviewed on Dialogues on Disability and for all your work. I think that you do a great service for academic philosophy by running BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY and by your other efforts, from which I and many others who are from non-traditional backgrounds benefit hugely. For my own part, your work has helped me feel less alone–given that my background is not typical for academia–and has helped me come to terms with this discrepancy, find community, and develop a sense of pride.

Robert, thank you very much for your kind words. They are greatly appreciated. Thanks also for your insightful remarks throughout this interview and for your exciting recommendations.

Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Robert Chapman’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.

From April 2015 to May 2021, I coordinated, edited, and produced the Dialogues on Disability series without any institutional or other financial support. A Patreon account now supports the series, enabling me to continue to create it. You can add your support for these vital interviews with disabled philosophers at the Dialogues on Disability Patreon account page here.


Please join me here again on Wednesday, December 21st for the ninety-third 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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