Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the twelfth installment of Dialogues on Disability, a series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and 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 in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Christine Overall. Christine is Professor Emerita of Philosophy and holds a University Research Chair at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where she was the first woman hired on the tenure track and tenured in the Philosophy Department. Her research interests include feminist philosophy, applied ethics, and philosophy of religion and she is currently editing an anthology for Oxford University Press entitled Pets and People: The Ethics of Our Relationships with Companion Animals. When Christine is not reading or writing about philosophy, she enjoys indoor cycling classes, sharing meals with friends, hanging out with family members (especially her grandsons), and creative writing. She belongs to a women writers’ group, whose members meet regularly to discuss each other’s work, and she is involved in theatre performance.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Christine! Your biography is very interesting in a number of ways, one of which is that, unlike most disabled people, you grew up with disabled family members. Please describe your background and your relationships with these disabled relatives.
Thanks very much, Shelley. I am honored to be included in this groundbreaking series.
I’m an early member of Canada’s so-called Baby Boom generation, which Statistics Canada considers to include any Canadian born between 1946 and 1965. In many ways, the cultural climate that I and others who grew up in the fifties and early sixties encountered was very different from the cultural climate nowadays. Back then, for example, people with disabilities were actively discouraged and even prevented from participating in “mainstream” culture.
My Uncle Jack—my mother’s younger brother—was born in 1928 and shortly thereafter diagnosed with serious, but not well-defined, physical and cognitive impairments. My grandmother was advised to “place him in an institution and forget about him.” Doctors were certain that he would die soon after birth. But my grandmother didn’t accept the advice of these doctors. Instead, she did something unusual and brave for the time: she and my grandfather and their three daughters cared for Jack at home and loved him. He was a family member in the fullest sense, known for his preferences, his quirks, and his fears, just like the other family members. Unlike his sisters, however, he remained dependent on his parents, my grandparents, to fill many of his needs. It took him many years to learn how to feed and dress himself and use the toilet; my grandparents always bathed him and shaved him.
Although Jack never learned to talk in any standard sense, he could communicate orally in ways that the family understood, had an extraordinary memory, and a great sense of humor. He never went to school; there was no formal education whatsoever at that time for children with his needs. Nonetheless, I think he had a full, enjoyable life, despite how few resources Canadian society offered disabled people like him throughout most of his life. He was cared for by my grandparents until my grandmother had a stroke at the age of eighty-six. Despite the doctors’ predictions, Jack lived to the age of seventy-five.
I grew up regarding Jack as a central member of my extended family. One of my favorite memories is watching my grandmother read Jack a book about First Nations people. Jack loved looking at pictures in books and at comics, had an abiding interest in his family members, and possessed a strong drive to communicate. When I would get ready to leave at the end of a visit, he would hand me a small piece of paper on which he had meticulously made penciled marks, cautioning me to be sure to pay attention to his message.
Jack looked and sounded unusual compared to most people and, sometimes when he and my grandparents were out in public, others reacted to his behaviors with fear or distaste. As a child, I was surprised when a friend of mine expressed horror about him; to me, he was simply my uncle. Nonetheless, I could see that Jack was different from the rest of the family. I wondered why no one could “cure” Jack so that he could learn to talk like us. Jack never received a clear diagnosis of his situation, nor was there information about what caused it.
Because I knew Jack for much of my life, I learned a number of things: First, that there is nothing strange or unusual about someone like Jack fully participating in family life; second, that caring for a person like Jack involves a tremendous amount of real, continuous, and care-ful—in the literal sense—work; third, that a family that cares for a person like Jack cannot count on resources or support from other individuals, institutions, or the state; and fourth, that it is not always possible to predict or explain an infant’s physical condition, nor the challenges that he will face. In fact, it is an illusion to suppose that we can control the course of reproduction, or indeed, any aspect of human life.
I want to underscore your assertion that you derived knowledge from your relationship with your uncle and his relationships with other members of your family. How have these relationships conditioned your feminist philosophy and your research interests?
According to the philosophical training that I received, scholars select their research topics on the basis of an impartial assessment of the scholarly potential of these topics. I recognized very early in my career that this is not the case. The reasons that academics choose the topics of their research and teaching are often related to their personal lives; early experiences can have a formative effect on the direction of a scholar’s work. Because of that observation and my commitment to feminism—according to which the personal is political—I have a strong interest in the role of autobiography in philosophical research. Indeed, in my own case, some of what I have written and taught has been directly inspired by my own personal history: For example, I have written about my origins in a working-class family and neighborhood; my reflections on being a woman in a male-dominated field; my experiences of pregnancy and motherhood; and my observations about disabled people and disabled lives.
From adolescence, I was very aware of all the ways in which, for women especially, procreation can end up conditioning one’s whole life. For example, I observed my grandmother caring for my uncle. While he was usually reasonably healthy, he was also dependent on her and other members of the family for care. In addition, I observed my younger brother, who was quite ill during infancy with unanticipated and unexplained hydrocephalus, which his doctors predicted would render him “a vegetable,” to use the demeaning language of the time. The doctors’ predictions turned out to be completely wrong, and the failure of these predictions, while an enormous relief to the family, underlined for me the capriciousness of the human condition.
In the 1980s, my cousin’s only daughter was diagnosed at birth with Down syndrome. Although this little girl was born sixty years after my Uncle Jack, her life, along with her mother’s, has been greatly affected by the lack of adequate resources and social support available to dependent persons, especially after childhood.
When, as a young woman, I was thinking about having children, I understood from first-hand experience that procreation is risky and unpredictable, that a tremendous amount of labor is involved in caring for children, that much of the labor required to care for them falls on women, and that there are crucial limits on the degree to which social supports will mitigate that labor. I knew that having a child changes one’s life forever.
Hence, it seemed to me that being able to make and act upon one’s own procreative decisions is essential to leading an adult life. Reproductive freedom and self-determination are especially important to women; without them, no woman can have a life that is genuinely her own. Given this perspective, I had an early interest in the political and social aspects of access to effective and safe contraception and abortion.
In Canada, contraception was—shockingly—not fully decriminalized until 1969. Abortion was not removed from the Criminal Code until 1988. During the 1980s, new technologies such as in vitro fertilization and ovum and embryo cryopreservation were developed and the practice of so-called “surrogate” motherhood spread. There was also—depending on one’s perspective—growing interest in, or worry about, the possibilities that one could select the sex of one’s offspring, and also create supposed “designer babies” by choosing gametes and making selections among embryos.
Nonetheless, in the early 1980s, philosophers apparently had little interest in these topics, with the exception of debates about the moral justification of abortion—and these debates were couched in terms that seldom took account of the real inequities faced by the women who gestate. Amazed by this absence of philosophical discussion, I began thinking, writing, and teaching about reproductive ethics and social policy. My general question was: How might reproductive technologies, policies, and practices be transformed so that they respect women’s lives and self-determination?
I have also, for a long time, been interested in the ways in which images, claims, and arguments about disabled persons appear in these debates, ways that seldom serve their interests. We live in a society that continues to be pro-natalist, but only toward certain kinds of people. Several aspects of debates about human reproduction arise from a long history of eugenic movements intended to purge humanity of individuals deemed to be inadequate, unworthy, or dysfunctional. Historically, certain women and men—particularly those who were very poor, uneducated, not white, or perceived to have impairments—were sterilized to prevent them from passing on their supposed inherent flaws. In the past, some fetuses were described as “defective,” as if they were products for which quality control was inadequate. These ideas have not yet disappeared.
One way or another—whether by virtue of genetic weakness or some kind of maternal inadequacy—there has been a tendency to blame women for the existence of these so-called fetal “defects.” Women are said to act thoughtlessly, or even selfishly, by smoking, consuming alcohol, taking prescription or illegal drugs, or eating poorly, affecting the development of their fetuses. Rarely do these charges take account of the actual circumstances in which women must live. Some people even argue that fetuses need legal protections against the women who would allegedly otherwise abuse them. Some people want to limit the freedom of some women to procreate—for example, by incarcerating them or by denying them access to fertility treatments and reproductive technologies—on the grounds that they would not be good gestators or good mothers (supposedly because of their socioeconomic status, racial identity, or physical or psychological condition).
In addition, philosophers such as Derek Parfit use thought experiments that involve allegedly feckless women who carelessly, or even malevolently, choose to gestate and give birth to infants with serious diseases, when they could have taken action to gestate at another time and consequently give birth to “healthy” babies. Thus, the existence of infants with impairments continues to be linked, in some philosophical narratives, with women’s presumed moral failures. Indeed, some women are pressured to end their pregnancies if healthcare providers decide that they are likely to deliver a baby with impairments. Women have written about being expected to feel guilty for giving birth to infants with dwarfism or Down syndrome, for example. Other philosophers, such as Julian Savulescu and Guy Kahane, urge women to use technology in order to generate the supposedly “best children”—thereby, I suppose, compensating for their otherwise dangerous impulses to create “less than perfect” offspring.
Despite these various social stresses, many women—provided they have at least minimal material and cultural resources and education—have more freedom than they did in the past to decide whether or not to procreate. For years, I have been interested in the moral dimension of choosing whether or not to have children, which is the topic of my most recent book. In the book I ask, not about what resources, technologies, and services should be available to enable people to make autonomous choices about reproduction, which was the focus of my previous work. Rather, I ask a prior, more general, question: How should we make choices about whether or not to procreate at all? One part of this book argues against the generalization that it is wrong for many disabled persons to have children, as well as against the claim that fetuses with impairments should necessarily be aborted.
Ableism and the apparatus of disability—like other strategies and mechanisms of power—are produced through a multitude of mutually-reinforcing social practices, social demands, and social institutions. Please describe your experience of these social phenomena, Christine.
One thing I have learned from experience is that there is great pressure on everyone to engage in what I call “passing for normal”—where “normal” means possessing a certain gender, race, sexuality, health condition, socioeconomic status, and age, namely, those of young, white, heterosexual, privileged male individuals with no apparent impairments or illnesses. If one can’t entirely pass for “normal” in this sense, one is expected to downplay one’s difference as much as possible, so as to avoid causing those who are “normal” any stress or discomfort.
Years ago, David Sealey, then a graduate student at Queen’s, said that he felt he had to “take care of white people” who found his skin color threatening. I believe this requirement to take care of people who are (considered) “normal” manifests itself in the demand that anyone who does not fit the “normal” profile must try as best she can to conform to it—lest her differences make too many demands on those who are “normal.” If she cannot conform sufficiently to this profile, then she should try to protect the feelings and needs of the people who do fit the profile, the people who are “normal.” Often, so-called “aggressive” women and other people who are not “normal” are criticized for their unwillingness to protect and take care of people who are threatened by their non-conformity to the profile.
The hypostasis of a condition of “normalcy” creates the unusualness, the apparent singularity, of all of the features and conditions that are deemed not “normal.” The pressure to pass for “normal” spurs people to strive to meet the norm and thereby hide, or try to hide, the various ways in which they deviate from it. The process is self-perpetuating: The more the pressure to pass for “normal” is successful, the less evident in social life are people who do not conform—and thus the harder it becomes for people who do not or cannot conform.
My Uncle Jack could never “pass for normal”; I think that’s part of the reason there was pressure on my family, first to institutionalize him, and then (when my grandmother refused to “put him away”) not to take him out in public, but to keep him hidden at home. According to an unwritten social rule, people who cannot pass for “normal” should be as unnoticeable as possible. That is why my grandmother’s support for and love of my Uncle Jack was so radical: She was determined that Jack would simply be, in as many ways as possible, a participating member of the family.
Jack was perceived as completely singular and unique, but not in a good way. In a better culture, a culture where people recognized the full extent of capacities and characteristics of the full range of human beings, someone like Jack might not be regarded as so impaired—or at the very least, there would be much more accommodation of his differences. And by “accommodation,” I don’t mean merely a kind of noblesse oblige that entails a few scant changes, but rather the transformation of schooling, social interactions, and public spaces so that people like Jack can participate as much as possible.
The pressure to pass for “normal” seems to have three sources. I think, first, it comes from attempts by mainstream people to save themselves from any discomfort they might feel if they were to notice that there are human beings who are not like them: Individuals who are not “normal” remind people who ostensibly are that there are other ways of being human, other ways of acting, thinking, and feeling, than those endorsed as “normal.” Second, I think that the pressure to pass for “normal” comes from mainstream resistance to the idea that there could be ways in which people who are ostensibly “normal” should change their behavior—for example by being more open, more prepared to learn, more humble, more helpful and supportive, and more willing to take steps to promote justice. Third, I suspect that the pressure to pass for “normal” is related to the enormous demands on all of us exerted by capitalism, demands to be both producers—in the narrow sense of generating measurable outcomes—and also to be consumers. Many people who do not pass for “normal” do not constantly produce and consume in ways that contribute to the growth of corporations, the wealth of investors, and the spread of the business model—some because they do not want to, and some because they can’t.
In my view, the pressure to pass for “normal” is endemic to academia and may be particularly difficult for people who experience depression or anxiety or are simply not extroverted. These days, plenty is written about introversion. Twenty years ago, when I first heard psychology professor Brian Little give a talk on the characteristics of introversion, I was enormously relieved to learn that features of myself—such as love of quiet and peaceful environments, difficulty in tolerating noisy crowds, anxiety in confronting large audiences—that I had thought of as weaknesses or deep flaws are simply components of one aspect of some people’s personality. Little points out that in order for introverted academics like me to succeed, we must be “pseudo-extroverts,” that is, we must act like extroverts, who enjoy high levels of sensory stimulation and thrive in large social groups.
Extroversion is the social norm and is almost essential for success in the West. In effect, in North America, to be introverted is to suffer from socially-constructed weaknesses. A few years ago, when I spent five months teaching in Japan, it was a great relief to be in a place where, despite the high population density, introversion is regarded as more “normal.”
Since its beginnings half a century ago, academic feminist philosophy has largely concentrated on the perspective, experiences, and oppression of young and middle-aged nondisabled women. You have written a great deal about both ageism and ableism. What do you regard as the relations between ageism and ableism?
I was inspired, Shelley, by your paper, “On the Government of Disability,” in which you argue that it is a mistake to suppose, as many do, that disability is socially constructed, whereas impairment is a biological given. Your paper motivated me to realize that impairments are not “natural”; that is, they are not entities that exist in “nature” independent of human agency.
Impairments are, I believe, socially constructed in (at least) two ways: conceptually and materially. Conceptually, cultures select certain physical, psychological, or mental conditions, interpret them as inherent biological features, define them as abnormal or defective, and regard them as fundamental to and constitutive of individuals who exemplify them. Materially, cultures create impairments through deprivation, malnutrition, workplace injuries, environmental hazards and contaminants, and deliberate human aggression.
In my work, I have argued that age is similarly socially constructed. Age theorists usually assume that elderly persons suffer from a social disadvantage that is superimposed upon a biologically-given old age. This idea is mistaken, for supposedly biologically-given old age is, itself, socially constructed. Conceptually, cultures pick out certain ages—defined by years lived—interpret them as biological givens, define them as significant in a particular way—usually in a positive way for younger ages and a negative way for older ages—and regard them as fundamental to, and constitutive of, individuals who arrive at those ages. Old age is also materially constructed through a variety of different social forces, including environmental depredations, workplace conditions, lack of access to health care, and inadequate financial resources. People do not acquire the physical, psychological, and intellectual markers of aging at the same rates, and the rate of aging is strongly reflective of social context. This material construction of old age is exemplified in the wide variations in life expectancies between first world and third world citizens, as well as between classes and races in Western society.
As a child and young adult, I was close to my grandparents. Despite, or perhaps because of, having survived the Great Depression and two world wars, three of them lived into their nineties. I admired the zest and enthusiasm with which they lived. My paternal grandfather, who was blown up in the trenches in France during World War I, once remarked that he had been “lucky all [his] life.” My relationship with my grandparents was also the source of my first inchoate thoughts and fears about death. At around the age of eight, I realized starkly that they would not live forever and would die some day. This apprehension was the seed of my interest in death and dying, as well as my support for increased human longevity. I recognized that old people, even if they are able to do less than what they could manage in their younger days, still cherish and enjoy their relationships, their activities, and their experiences. I came to understand that elder lives should be valued as much as young lives are valued.
From an early age, I have been aware of the ageism that is levelled at old people. The term burden is used with impunity to describe old people, as it is used to describe people who are chronically ill or whose physical or mental capacities deviate from what is regarded as “normal.” Seeing people who are old or who are impaired as nothing but burdens is part of a totalizing narrative that reduces people to one characteristic. This narrative constructs aging as no more than a chronicle of decline. As a result, as people age, they are expected to pass as young and as youthful, or at least attempt to pass in this way.
Of course, most old people do not meet the standard of “normal” by which someone who is twenty or thirty years old might live. But, why must “normalcy” be defined only in terms of young adulthood? There is tremendous handwringing about the supposed costs that members of my demographic, the “Boomers,” will impose on future generations. The assumption is that everyone should have the needs, and only the needs, of someone who is “normal,” that is, someone who is young. However, there is no reason to suppose that an eighty-year-old should have the same medical issues or needs for social support that a thirty-year-old possesses. People are labelled “burdens,” at least in part, because there is a covert assumption that the sum of social resources on which people should draw must be the same at every stage of life, that it is somehow unfair when they draw on more than other people do.
Thus, ageism and ableism are similar insofar as they both impute to certain people, not only inadequacy, but outright lack of entitlement or desert. In some of its manifestations, ableism infantilizes people; in other manifestations, ableism classifies disabled people along with elderly people. Since we live in an ageist culture, this intersection of ableism and ageism further harms disabled persons. A large number of years lived is stigmatized at least in part because people associate many years lived with the supposedly inevitable development of features regarded as impairments. On the other hand, the features regarded as impairments are stigmatized because they are associated, stereotypically, with the loss of what is seen as youthful vigor and capacity. Both elderly people and disabled people are said to be a burden, to draw unfairly upon the financial resources of young people. Members of both groups are assumed, globally, to be inactive, to not contribute in crucial ways to the well-being of the polis.
Canadian society likes to commend itself for its supposed openness to certain kinds of “diversity”; however, the variations that are considered acceptable at present don’t include not being young, not being vigorously active, not being quick at everything, and not being highly comfortable with a high-stimulation, high-stress environment.
In addition to your extensive research in the areas of reproduction, age, and disability, you have written articles and book chapters on class and your experience as an academic with a working-class background. I’d like to end this interview by asking you which books, articles, and videos you recommend to readers and listeners who want to learn more about ageism, class, and ableism, especially with respect to academia.
In keeping with my interest in biography and autobiography as sources for philosophy, I think one way to inform oneself about these issues is to read autobiographical or partially autobiographical works by people whose lives have not conformed to mainstream expectations for “normalcy.” For narratives on aging, for example, I recommend recent books by two women writers, Diana Athill and P.D. James. I also admire two older works, by Baba Copper and by Barbara Macdonald, that are more explicitly feminist and indeed radical in their perspective.
With respect to disability, I have long been a fan of Nancy Mairs’s books, including Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled. Scott Stossel’s 2014 book is a forthright exploration of living and thriving with almost-constant anxiety. I have learned a great deal from Melinda Tankard Reist’s edited collection of articles by women writing about their procreative experiences, either as individuals with impairments, or as the mothers of individuals with impairments.
On the significance of class, C. L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law edited a collection two decades ago of articles by academics who grew up working class. A more recent anthology includes articles by people from a variety of socioeconomic classes. My writing is included in both of these books. I also recommend the “Up” series of videos, which chronicles a group of fourteen British children, starting in the early 1960s and returning to them every seven years thereafter to see how their lives evolve and change. The most recent video is “56 Up.” In important ways, the original group was not diverse—there were only four girls and only one child who was not white—but the children came from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, including working class, middle class, and owning class.
The Peaceable Classroom, by Mary Rose O’Reilley, documents her attempts to make classrooms less “violent”—both physically and psychologically—in part by taking seriously the variations in capacities and socioeconomic class among her students. O’Reilley’s book, The Garden at Night: Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life, is insightful and offers support to academics who may find teaching stressful, as well as rewarding. A wryly honest book about the many demands and contradictions of university teaching and other work is Jane Tompkins’s A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned.
Thank you for offering this fantastic assortment of resources, Christine. Thank you, also, for sharing your wisdom on a range of topics, including disability, ageing, procreation, and academia. Your remarks are an important contribution to the Dialogues on Disability series.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Christine Overall’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, April 20th at 8 a.m. EST for the first anniversary 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 email@example.com. 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.