This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “Philosophy and Disability” with guest Anita Silvers. Click here to listen to the episode.
I want to have a philosophical discussion about disability, but before we begin, it is worth asking how we can philosophize about a subject that is either invisible to most people, or deeply embarrassing. It is invisible because we think little of the ramps we walk up or the braille on the ATM. When we use the most obvious reminder of living with a disability—the extra-wide toilet stall in a public restroom—we are either anxious that we are going to be in someone’s way who needs it, or relieved that we found a stall big enough to comfortably hang our big coats and heavy work bags. Where to hang your big coat is not a trivial issue in North Dakota.
Disability is embarrassing to address because we don’t like to call attention to people’s impairments or conditions. We are uncomfortable highlighting someone’s difference unless we perceive it as positive or worth celebrating. But, of course whether someone with a disability is to be considered different at all is a philosophical question, and it is unclear whether pathologizing disability is even useful. I’ve already used the terms “impairment” and “condition” in my introduction and I don’t quite know what new information this brings to the table. Also, I’ve already implied that my audience is looking at disability from afar, not experiencing it. I’ve actually reaffirmed the invisibility of the disabled while attempting to call attention to them.
All of this suggests, first, that we may have to do some psychiatry before we do philosophy. We may have to look at our personal resistance to encountering disability as a normal fact of life. More deeply though, it also tells us that we will have to work exceptionally hard to let the disabled speak for themselves. We are used to thinking of disability in terms of advocacy, in terms of the children with autism who cannot articulate their needs well, or the PTSD stricken veteran who has been isolated from society. But the latter is an adult with his or her own voice and the former can communicate in a variety of effective ways, too. It is us, not them, who aren’t paying attention.
This tendency to speak for others, it will turn out, is a huge problem in academic philosophy. Even the most egalitarian philosophers have a tendency to assume that people with disabilities are outliers in the social contract, not equal participants. We will talk about this specifically later in the show.
Their mistake is the same as ours: the vast majority of conversations people have about disability concern our personal reactions to disability rather than engaging with the disabled themselves. And when we finally do get around to doing that, when we ask, for example, about complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, we focus in on the economic cost. We ask whether having wheelchair accessible toilets is too much of a burden for small businesses, or whether retrofitting a school is spending too much money on one single interest group. We go from the psychological to the political instantaneously, paying virtually no attention to the meaning of our words, the assumptions we make about what the good life is, or even the diverse nature of personhood.
To use a phrase I learned from today’s guest, our discussions about disability are almost always “anti-aspirational.” That is, they are not about what we, disabled or not, can aspire to, but rather about mitigating the supposed tragedy of bodies preventing people from what they would otherwise achieve. Most of the discussions I have with my students are about their curiosities and what they hope to accomplish with their studies, but to be frank, the majority of my conversations with students with learning disabilities focus on “accommodation,” about making special arrangements so they too can do the work. If every interaction one has with somebody is about equalizing the playing field, there is very little opportunity to discuss what life is like after they win.
On today’s episode we are going to investigate the nature of disability. We are going to begin by asking what disability means, and then proceed to questions of self-worth, public policy, even the ways in which philosophy itself has skewed our understating of how to think about people with disabilities. But doing this will require unlearning a great deal. What we think we know about disability is deeply mistaken, profoundly unfair, and more than a little dangerous. To highlight an irony, yes, there are many people in the world with disabilities, but in this case, it is the ones without who are at a disadvantage.
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