Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the first installment of Dialogues on Disability, a series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and will post here 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 personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and academia, more generally, resistance to ableism, accessibility, and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Bryce Huebner, an associate professor in the philosophy department at Georgetown University. By his own description, Bryce is a heavily-tattooed philosopher of the biological, cognitive, and social sciences. When he isn’t thinking about philosophy and writing it, Bryce looks for music that he can listen to while he thinks about philosophy and writes it, in addition to making delicious coffees to fuel his academic pursuits. He often goes to punk, noise, metal, hip hop, and dark-wave shows. Over the past few years, he has been learning how to live with the disadvantage that accrues to him because of celiac disease, which is classified as an auto-immune disorder. Bryce, who is ambivalent about conceiving the disadvantage of celiac disease as disability, is happy to discuss this ambivalence, in addition to other issues that arise from his remarks, in the Comment section below this interview.
Welcome, Bryce! To start things off, why don’t you tell us about your background and what motivated you to do graduate work in philosophy and then become a professional philosopher?
Thanks for inviting me, Shelley! I’m excited about your series of Dialogues on Disability and I’m flattered to be your first guest. I think there are many philosophers who will have more interesting things to say about these issues than me, but I’ll do my best to kick things off—at least saying some things about disadvantage and embodiment.
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in West Valley City, Utah. I did well in school, but academia was never on my radar. I had never heard of philosophy until I got to college. My first semester, I took a class that was team-taught by a philosopher and a historian. I loved it and declared a double major. I didn’t have much of a plan, but I liked being a student. So I asked a historian and a philosopher what graduate school was like. The historian was happy to have done it, but found it intense and difficult. The philosopher told me it was fun and that he’d never been happier. That settled the issue, but I didn’t really know what I was getting into.
I didn’t have the skills or knowledge to go to grad school; and I also didn’t know how to fix that. So, I spent the next year reading as much philosophy as possible, picking up a book whenever I wasn’t unloading freight for UPS. Without guidance, I traipsed across disciplinary boundaries, picking up the books that kept showing up on bookstore shelves. I worked hard, read a lot, and got lucky, ending up in the M.A. program at Colorado State. I still didn’t know what philosophy was. But I worked with amazing people like Jane Kneller, Jim Maffie, and Philip Turetzky. We talked about Marxist and feminist philosophy, Deleuze and Spinoza, the sociology of science, and the exclusion of Africana and Mexica philosophy from the philosophical canon. And I realized that I wanted to be a philosopher. Ten years later, I sort of figured out what philosophers are supposed to do.
You certainly have a rich and variegated philosophical background from which to draw. How would you describe your current work?
My philosophical background helped me to cultivate anti-habitual tendencies. I read widely and organize my writing and teaching to bring multiple perspectives to bear on questions about human agency, as well as the implications of scientific research on ethical theorizing. Right now, I’m approaching these questions with tools from the cognitive and biological sciences, using a theoretical perspective that is informed by my reading of Benedict de Spinoza, Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Stokely Carmichael, Paulo Friere, Dan Dennett, Kathleen Akins, and some graduate students and early career philosophers who are doing amazing work! For me, philosophy is, and always has been, about remixing!
I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about how you position disability in relation to the philosophy done in some of the areas that you mentioned. Philosophers of disability and disability theorists have identified ways in which aspects central to cognitive science and philosophy of mind rely upon biases and misinformation about disabled people. Has your exposure to this work and to philosophy of disability and disability theory, more generally, altered your own work in the philosophy of cognitive science? If so, how?
This is a hard question to answer. I started reading about disability a couple of years back when I was asked to give a commentary on a cool paper that Joe Stramondo presented at the Central APA. Ever since, I’ve been incorporating disability perspectives into my classes. I have a paper under review that includes a brief discussion of cognitive disability. I’ve also submitted an abstract for a paper on autism and cognitive science with Melanie Yergeau. But I feel like a novice when it comes to questions about disability and I still have a lot to learn. So, I’ll keep reading and teaching work on disability; and I do hope to incorporate research on disability more thoroughly in my writing in the near future. I’ve been thinking, recently, about disability and agency. I hope these thoughts will make their way into my next book. I’m not positive what I want to say and probably won’t be until some time in the middle of my upcoming sabbatical.
I think we’d all love to get a glimpse of your thinking on these matters at this point. So, let me ask you this question: How do you think philosophy of disability can contribute to cognitive science and philosophy of mind, in particular, and philosophy, more generally?
I think it’s much harder to defend depoliticized, un-embodied, and de-worlded approaches to studying minds when you think about disability. Strangely, even the research on embodied cognition has neglected the ways that different kinds of embodiment affect cognition. I’m guilty of that, and I’m working on being better. So I think there are at least two ways that research on disability can and should inform philosophy and cognitive science.
First, research on disability often reveals patterns of entrenched bias in the formation of hypotheses and in decisions about what counts as a signal and what counts as noise. For example, the tacit assumption that cognitive disabilities are deficits makes it easier to treat these disabilities as defects and to design experiments that target the existence and stability of such defects. This perspective obscures the fact that neural differences are the result of biological variation in the human species. This perspective also makes it difficult to consider the ways in which social and material structures contribute to the emergence and stability of observed deficits. Consequently, it’s harder to entertain hypotheses about the full suite of capacities that arise as a result of different forms of embodiment. I think philosophers and cognitive scientists could benefit from thinking about (for example) the impact of things like early intervention and education on Down syndrome and about the results of research on autism carried out by teams with autistic members. These cases promise to open up new hypotheses; and that strikes me as a good thing!
Second, research on disability clarifies the ways in which human action can be scaffolded by, and inhibited by, different material and social environments. This is a fairly obvious point, but I think that it has the potential to reshape the ways that philosophers and scientists approach questions about agency, freedom, and responsibility. Thinking about how the material and social world can increase and decrease the power to act might make some questions look less pressing; but it will also make questions about how to organize our social and material environments far more intriguing, and far more naturalistically tractable. This is where the literature on disability will probably impact my future work, but I’m still not quite sure what I have to say about that.
That’s a great start! Let’s talk about accessibility. Over the past year, you have written posts on Facebook about the problems that arise for you when conference organizers don’t pay attention to the meals that they serve during their conferences. How do you think conference organizers should attend to this issue, and why should they?
I have a hard time conceptualizing celiac disease as a disability—but I don’t know how much that says about me and how much it says about my attitudes regarding disability. Conversations with Megan Dean have been helpful in clarifying my ambivalence on this point. My own experience with celiac has included massive gastrointestinal distress (much of which I would prefer not to discuss), severe cramping, visual migraines, insomnia, mood disorders (including depression and “moodiness”), and serious skin problems. And I will probably experience eating anything that I haven’t cooked myself as risky for the rest of my life. That said, it’s fairly easy to manage; and more importantly, I’ve never been discriminated against for having celiac disease, though I do routinely argue with people who lampoon gluten-free diets. But there are cases where it’s annoying to deal with and there are many social situations in academia that make it a disadvantage. Since there are many others with similar issues (celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and more), I think it’s important to think about how disadvantages are constructed by failing to account for these forms of embodiment.
Events with food and beer play an important role in the official and unofficial business of academia. Meetings are often accompanied by lunches; department parties often center on food and drinks; meals are sometimes provided at conferences; and meals are frequently a part of giving talks in other departments. When people organize such events, they inquire about dietary restrictions; and, frequently, they claim to understand, but then they fail to organize their events in ways that make them accessible.
Here are a couple of examples. There is an upcoming event where I’ve been told, after several rounds of discussion, that the gluten-free option will involve a whole-wheat tortilla. I’ll bring my own food to that one. At a conference last spring, I provided information about my dietary needs and I was told that food would be available. I asked the conference organizer—several times—to make sure things were taken care of because the conference venue was located far from town. But, when I arrived, there was nothing I could eat. I sat through 11 hours of talks with no access to food and no way to get to my hotel or a grocery store. At multi-day events, things sometimes work out fine on the first day, generating the assumption that things are taken care of—and then, on subsequent days, with no warning, the options disappear. Finally, I don’t think that people understand that a minuscule amount of gluten—such as food cooked on the same surface as a gluten-containing grain—can trigger physical and psychological effects that last for multiple days; and it’s not always possible to determine how things are prepared. This yields a dilemma: go without eating, or eat something and spend several hours wondering if doing so was a mistake.
All of this is annoying, and the added stress and potential for things to go incredibly badly yields patterns of disadvantage. I try to manage this by carrying dried fruits and nuts. I have left conferences to get food, thereby opting out of the ongoing conversation, but this isn’t always possible, especially when I’m traveling, when I lack facility with a local language, or when groceries aren’t easily accessible. Such situations are difficult to navigate, and they could be avoided with a little help from the people who are organizing various events. Academics routinely fail to recognize that people are embodied, and a bit of planning would go a long way toward making academic events more accessible to people with dietary issues. Over the past year, I’ve learned that many people face similar problems. So, I think that the people putting together academic events should think carefully about these sorts of issues, and many other issues that arise as a result of other forms of embodiment, because they can make things more accessible with just a tiny bit more planning.
I want to ask you about your teaching, but let me note, first, that a growing number of philosophers of disability and disability theorists construe disability as socially constituted disadvantage, as systemic, rather than as an acquired, or intrinsic, characteristic of an individual, or property of a person. On this construal of disability, a given person is disabled, rather than has a disability, just as one is gendered, rather than has a gender. On this understanding of disability, the disadvantage to which you have drawn attention is inaccessibility and thus would certainly fall under the rubric of disability. With this understanding in mind, let’s consider the classroom. I think readers of this interview would be interested to know how you incorporate your political sensibility into your pedagogy. What tactics do you use to promote anti-ableist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-oppressive approaches to philosophy in your classroom, on social media, etc.?
One reason why I’ve been ambivalent about calling celiac a disability turns on my understanding of the relationship between embodiment and social disadvantage that you’re calling attention to. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to help my students understand that disability is not an all-or-nothing matter. I have also tried to help them conceive of disabilities as falling within a complex, multidimensional, and socially situated space, by discussing things like anxiety, depression, and celiac disease. One way I’ve done this—which I would like to explore in more detail—is by imagining a space that varies along three dimensions that I’ve already mentioned: first, the typicality of a particular form of embodiment; second, the robustness of the disadvantages that a person experiences as a result of being embodied in a particular way, in a particular environment; and, third, the patterns of socially entrenched discrimination that target that form of embodiment. Along these dimensions, people with celiac are disabled in interesting ways. It is an atypical form of embodiment, but it is fairly common—roughly 1% of the population of the US has celiac disease. It’s disadvantageous in situations like the ones I discussed above, but those situations are a relatively small part of my lived experience, and they are typically easy to manage, though managing them does take quite a bit of time. It doesn’t feel to me like it’s a target of socially entrenched discrimination, though I do have to deal with people who don’t take celiac disease seriously and who assume that I am just avoiding gluten by choice; this is part of what makes eating so risky. Phenomenologically, however, it doesn’t usually feel to me like I’m disabled, though I assume that many people do experience celiac as a disability and I think that they are probably right to do so. Consequently, I believe that thinking of celiac disease as a disability helps to problematize the all-or-nothing view that many people seem to have regarding disabilities and helps to make it clear how relevant the structure of the social world is to the presence or absence of a disability. So, I do talk about my experience with celiac in in my courses.
Beyond that, I don’t really have a general story about how I get students to think about ableism, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. I don’t trust myself to be free from bias, so I work hard to listen to and take advice from people who know more than I do. Over the past couple of years, I have been trying to highlight anti-kierarchical and anti-oppressive perspectives in the narratives that I construct for each of my courses. I have been trying to make sure that these perspectives are not just “tacked on” at the end of the course, but are made part of the story that we are constructing together in the classroom. When I lecture, I try to use examples that target issues of disability, race, and class and I try to make it clear that I believe these are important issues to think about in developing ideas about minds, metaphysics, and social practices. I have also started to put together Tumblrs for my classes that draw in discussions of ableism, racism, sexism, classism, colonialism, and more, over the course of the semester. That seems to help the students stay focused on these issues and it keeps me sharing things that I read as I wander through the intertubes. Finally, I tend to crowdsource the process of syllabus design, noting my desire to promote anti-ableist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-oppressive perspectives in my classes. This has yielded a number of really interesting conversations about different parts of philosophy and a lot of excitement among people who would like to restructure their courses, but don’t really know how.
What three or four articles or books have you read recently that you would recommend for this purpose?
I read a ton of different things which makes it difficult for me to pick the stuff that I’ve been the most excited about. So, I’ll just take this opportunity to call attention to a few of the things that I’ve read recently that I think it would be cool for people to pay attention to. One is Melanie Yergeau’s “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind,” which appeared in the special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly [ST: vol. 33, no. 4, 2013] devoted to the theme Improving Feminist Philosophy and Theory by Taking Account of Disability; and I would recommend reading that alongside Lisa Zunshine and Ralph James Savarese’s “The Critic as Neurocosmopolite; Or, What Cognitive Approaches to Literature Can Learn from Disability Studies,” which appeared in Narrative, vol. 22, no. 1, in 2014. Lisa Guenther is writing a series of short pieces on the phenomenology of incarceration. Her stuff is amazing, and I would strongly recommend keeping an eye on it, as there is a ton to learn from it. She has written three pieces so far: “Carceral Dreams, Nuclear Afterthoughts”; “A Critical Phenomenology of the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility”; and “Caging as a Collective Praxis of Social Death.” Finally, Leah Smith is writing some truly awesome blog posts about disability at the Center for Disability Rights, Etc. page, under the heading “The Disability Dialogue.” One of her recent posts, entitled “Optional, People or Optional People?,” addresses the use of nondisabled actors to play disabled characters in film and on stage.
Fantastic suggestions, Bryce. Thanks very much for offering them. I’d also like to thank you for taking the time to be interviewed for the inaugural installment of Dialogues on Disability. You’ve been a terrific guest, raising a number of provocative issues.
Readers of this interview are invited to use the Comments section below to discuss the issues that Bryce Huebner has raised, as well as other issues of relevance. Comments will be moderated. Though signed comments are preferred and encouraged, anonymous comments will be permitted.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, May 20th at 8 a.m. EST for the second interview in the Dialogues on Disability series and indeed on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews in progress. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, gender, race, institutional status, culture, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.