Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the twenty-first installment of Dialogues on Disability, the 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 Joseph Stramondo. Joe is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Associate Director of the Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs at San Diego State University. His research focuses on the intersection of bioethics and philosophy of disability. He is currently working on projects related to moral psychology and well-being and has interests in feminist philosophy and social-political philosophy. In his down time, Joe can usually be found exploring the many wonders of his new home state with his partner, newborn daughter, and two dogs.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Joe! Please describe your background and how it led you to understand that medicalized conceptions of disability misconstrue its phenomena.
I grew up in a white, middle-class family living in a New England suburb. My first realization that disability was not merely a medical issue, but rather a civil rights issue, came after I passed the entrance exam to attend the same private Catholic high school from which all my siblings had graduated. Although I passed the entrance exam to the school, I couldn’t enroll in it because the building was inaccessible to my motorized scooter. The school wasn’t subject to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it was a religiously-oriented institution. The ADA was a relatively new law at the time and, as an adolescent, I was just beginning to gain some sort of political awareness. I remember very clearly the conversation with my father who told me that I had a right to attend the public high school: the school was legally required to be accessible. He didn't use the term structural discrimination, but when I look back now, I understand that the conversation was very much about discrimination.
As I gained more independence and moved toward adulthood, I learned to be vigilant about physical access issues because of my mobility disabilities; but, I didn't think much about my disability in any other way. I still thought of it primarily as a personal inconvenience more than anything else. That is, I thought about it that way until I encountered Robert Murphy’s self-ethnography The Body Silent in a Medical Anthropology class during my sophomore year as an undergrad. Murphy was an anthropologist at Columbia University who acquired a slowly-progressing disability from a tumor on his spinal cord. His book is an excellent analysis of how his lived experience of American culture radically shifted as he became disabled and began to encounter ableism in all its myriad manifestations.
Reading Murphy's descriptions of how his everyday interactions changed when he became a wheelchair user—whether he was rolling down a New York City sidewalk or socializing at a cocktail party—very much raised my consciousness toward an understanding of disability as a social-political category, naming the ableism that I had experienced first hand. Even though I’d only been to New York a couple of times and hadn’t (and still haven’t) attended an actual cocktail party, when I read Murphy’s narrative about his experiences, it was as if I was reading about myself. He had a very different life than mine; yet, our experiences were the same. After reading Murphy’s book, I no longer regarded disability as an individualized inconvenience and certainly not as merely a medical problem. I had been a member of minority social group for my entire life and hadn't even realized it.
You became interested in philosophy after you took courses in the history of philosophy and, in particular, ancient philosophy. You identified with Socrates. How would describe this identification? And how does it motivate your current research?
This is such a fun question! Like most public high schools, the high school that I attended did not have offerings in philosophy. So, my first taste of the discipline came as a freshman at Trinity College in Hartford, when I enrolled in a course in Ancient Greek Philosophy with Professor Helen Lang, as part of a program of study for the European Civilization minor that I was pursuing. At the time, I thought that I would become a history major. That quickly changed after I became intensely attracted to philosophy because of the methodology of argumentation that it used to learn about the world around us and because its content addressed the biggest and most challenging questions of human experience.
As I read the Ancient Greeks, I discovered philosophy's apparent usefulness for challenging conventional beliefs. Like many young people who feel alienated from their communities in various ways, Socrates was very much the hero of the Platonic dialogues for me, triumphing as gadfly again and again. I doubt that this sort of identification with Socrates was unique to my experience as a new student of philosophy. I think this sort of hero-worship of the major figures in the canon can be problematic in all sorts of ways. Yet, it did, perhaps, help me recognize the potential that philosophy holds to bring about change for marginalized individuals and groups.
Although my philosophical interests and understanding of what we are up to as philosophers have since matured quite a bit, I still do appreciate the discipline’s potential for truly critical thought. It would be an enormous stretch for me to claim to be any sort of gadfly to the profession, but I do hope that, someday, I will be able to look back on my career and see a research program that challenged widely-accepted, mistaken assumptions—especially about disability—that are maintained in bioethics and philosophy.
I should probably also mention that this potential is probably why so much of my work focuses on applied philosophy. Of course, theoretical rigor is essential; but, for me, philosophy’s power is realized when it has a direct impact on how lives are lived.
For example, a few years ago, I gave a paper at the Central APA that advanced an argument for why bioethics needs to recognize the moral psychologies of disability in order to address some of its major biases. An audience member commented that she liked my ideas; but, she thought they were too narrowly focused on bioethics and could be relevant to normative ethics as a whole. I’m not sure if she was correct about the possibilities for a wider application of my argument; but, I was focused on bioethics because the experiences of disabled people are so often medicalized as a part of our oppression. If part of what I am up to is a liberatory project then, of course, I am going to try to focus my arguments on the politically problematic areas of philosophy. So, maybe, I do want to be something of a gadfly after all.
Following up on your last remarks, let’s talk about the importance of public engagement. Philosophers who are members of socially subordinated groups have long understood that community involvement and social engagement are vital to their survival and flourishing. For more than a decade, you have been involved in a variety of local and national organizations that aim to counter ableism and increase the social participation of and opportunities available to disabled people. What are some of the highlights of these endeavours?
Although I still stay involved here and there, most of my significant engagement in disability activism happened during graduate school, before I was partnered and had a child to look after. In fact, most of my closest friends and social support during this period of my life were other disabled students and activists; so, this community was indeed vital to my survival and flourishing. I did my grad work at Michigan State University. The MSU campus is just a brief bus ride from the Michigan state capitol; so, there were a lot of opportunities to be involved locally.
Before moving to Michigan, I was involved in organizations that were formally affiliated with the Independent Living (IL) movement as a central focus of my political activity. The IL movement is a very important branch of the disability rights movement that focuses on people’s rights to control their own lives in various ways, even when they need long-term supports, such as a personal attendant, to help with various activities of daily living. Grad school was a time to explore new things and, when I realized that the folks involved in IL in Lansing weren’t the best fit for my politics, I quickly fell in with ADAPT, a group that is sometimes described as more radical than the traditional IL movement.
ADAPT is known for using non-violent direct action, including civil disobedience, to advance its political goals. I was convinced, and still am, that rational argumentation and discourse is often not enough to bring about social change for marginalized groups. Sometimes, the power disparities are so great that you can’t even enter the conversation to make your case. The reason that I do philosophy, as I mentioned above, is because of its potential to bring about social change; nevertheless, clear and careful argumentation is useless if power dynamics preclude any sort of discourse. ADAPT had been using non-violent protests effectively for decades—it is the group credited with getting ramps and lifts installed on every city bus in the United States—and so, I knew that I could learn something from them.
I could easily fill several interviews just with “war stories” from my activist personal history; but, I’ll focus on one event that is particularly illustrative of why I believe in the political necessity of non-violent direct action for the disability movement and the peculiar kind of power that it offers disabled people in particular. At the time of this event, there was a bill in Congress that would guarantee funding for home and community-based long-term care services for disabled and elderly people as an alternative to institutional—that is, nursing home—care. ADAPT had tried to get a certain Michigan U.S. senator to co-sponsor the bill by sending several letters that asked for such a commitment or at least a meeting.
This Democratic senator had historically been supportive of similar initiatives; but, our attempts to get her attention with the letters and phone calls had been ignored for months. We decided that, if Michigan was going to do its part in trying to get disabled people out of nursing homes and into the community where they could have some possibility at a real life, we needed to stage a direct action.
So, one crisp autumn morning, a half a dozen of us—maybe seven or eight people, mostly using wheelchairs—showed up at the Lansing field office of this senator and handed a demand letter to the person who, I believe, was her chief-of-staff, asking for co-sponsorship of the bill or at least a meeting and stating that we were not leaving until we got one of these demands met. We were literally laughed at and told that the senator was very busy, could not possibly meet these requests on such short notice, and that we would need to wait for them to get back to us. In response, we presented the staffer with evidence that we had tried to make such requests for months.
Then, we “escalated” by using our wheelchairs and bodies to physically block all the exits of the office and settled into our chanting. To give you a bit more of the flavor of that day, some of my favorite chants on the day included: “Community Solutions, Not Institutions!” and “Just Like a Nursing Home, You Can't Get Out!” The staffer told me that she was going to have to call the police to have us removed. I replied that I had someone with a press-list on stand-by who was ready to make the arrest of disabled people into headline news across the state.
We went home that day, not to jail, and we did it with a copy of a fax from Washington showing that the senator had signed on as co-sponsor of the bill. Thus, using non-violent direct action, we accomplished in hours what we couldn’t do in months with more subdued methods because we didn’t have the senator’s attention.
I think there is a lot that is philosophically interesting about non-violent direct action in general. There are questions around whether this sort of tactic amounts to coercion, for instance. Yet, this story is particularly illustrative of how the stigmas and stereotypes around disability can actually be harnessed as a political tool by direct action. I believe that it was the staffer’s unwillingness to publicly display disabled people as something other than objects of pity that got us the signed letter of co-sponsorship.
Elsewhere, I have written about how an ideology of pity functions politically to maintain the status quo of disabled people’s oppression. Disrupting that ideology by arresting us for trespassing or disturbing the peace was too costly, politically, that day. For this reason, I’d say tactics like those of ADAPT rely on society’s commitment to the very same stigmas that we are trying to dismantle. It’s something of a paradox, maybe.
[Description of image below: A coloured photo of Joe, a white man, leading a protest chant during an ADAPT, non-violent direct action in Washington, D.C. He has a brown beard, is wearing a green t-shirt, green-brimmed white hat, and glasses, is holding a black megaphone in his right hand, and is surrounded by protestors.]
In a number of places, I and others have pointed out that philosophy is a hostile environment for disabled philosophers that manifests in our underrepresentation in the profession. How do you describe the relation between the philosophical domain and disabled philosophers, Joe? And what factors contribute to the production and reproduction of this situation?
I think there are many, many factors that contribute to why disabled people are underrepresented in philosophy, some of which relate to philosophy as a discipline and others that are broader in scope. There is a myriad of ways in which higher education is generally inaccessible to disabled people such as lack of universal design, a burdensome bureaucratic process for securing accommodations, and intersecting disadvantages, like poverty, which so often tracks disability. I did a post on this blog a couple of years back that addresses the disincentives faced by disabled students and faculty who need to be accommodated in order to access the academy. So, the problem is much bigger than just philosophy itself.
With that said, I think there is an analysis that can and should be made of how philosophy specifically contributes to the marginalization of disabled people in its ranks. Feminist philosophy has blazed a trail here, with many, many pages that have been written about how ideal theory gets it wrong by erasing difference in order to try to achieve objectivity. What this really amounts to, of course, is a privileging of the perspective of the socially powerful who are constructing the terms of the argument based on assumptions from their own experience, which they take to be universal.
For example, in my AOS—bioethics—it is common that arguments rely on a certain, liberal view of autonomy that emphasizes non-interference as the most important factor in respecting a person's ability to determine the shape of their own life. It’s as if many bioethicists believe that people are actually making choices from Rawls’ original position, behind the veil of ignorance so that social factors of disability, gender, race, class, and so on don’t have any impact on the choices that are available. Of course, this conception of autonomy makes no sense to someone who finds that so many of their life choices are stymied by the barriers of structural discrimination. “Interference” is often exactly what we need for meaningful self-determination, but this fact is anathema to bioethics’ ideal of autonomy that is held so sacred!
I should note that this critique of liberal autonomy in bioethics is not new and owes its heritage to the relational view of autonomy developed by feminist scholars. Also, this experience of having your range of choices depend on your relation to others is experienced by many folks that live lives constrained by structural discrimination. But it’s certainly true for disabled people in particular, and it certainly plays a part in how they are alienated from the field of bioethics. I cover some of these arguments in greater detail in my new article “Why Bioethics Needs a Disability Moral Psychology” that appeared in The Hastings Center Report in the summer of this year.
So, in a sense, the structural discrimination is in the tangible practices of the academy, as well as the methods and contents of the theorizing itself. That is, when arguments are made based on assumptions that are completely alien to your experience of the world and your arguments are dismissed because they don't align with these assumptions, then it is going to be difficult to even want to engage in the discourse. By doing philosophy as ideal theory, the profession refuses to recognize this sort of alienation, never mind take steps to remediate it.
What, in your view, must change to make philosophy welcoming to disabled philosophers?
Well, Shelley, I don’t know that I have any silver bullet or revolutionarily original idea about how to solve these deep and complicated problems of structural disadvantage. One thing that I do know is that this interview series that you’ve created on this blog is a very, very important means toward these ends. Students wanting to enter the profession need role models and mentors who share their experience. That is why, I think, the most important audience for your project is not necessarily the power players in the profession who need a better understanding of how it excludes, but rather the disabled philosophy students who may be considering a career in philosophy.
By having explicit conversations with disabled philosophers about how the profession is structurally hostile to disability in various ways, you are showing that there are disabled people in the profession (so it is a plausible choice), without whitewashing the very real challenges that we face as we try to enter it and advance. In other words, by focusing on the hostility embedded in the profession, the series encourages students of philosophy, but it doesn’t gas-light them into thinking that they are imagining or exaggerating the structural hostility that they experience.
The Dialogues on Disability series sends the clear message that the barriers that disabled students face are very real, but also sends the message that a community exists of like-minded folks who have also experienced these barriers and are ready and willing to help. This series also generates ideas about how these barriers can be dismantled and presents these solutions to a wide audience across social media and so on. Thus, the content of these discussions is also very important for making the kinds of changes that are needed to bring more disabled philosophers into the fold.
For me, it seems that ensuring basic access is a first step. This means making a significant investment in understanding and following the principles of universal design at our universities, in our classrooms, and at our conferences, while also including a mechanism for disabled people to receive additional accommodations that may have been missed. It’s also important that any such mechanism not be burdensome to the disabled person making the request to supplement an imperfect attempt at universal design because this burden itself is a profound structural disadvantage. Disabled philosophers should be using their time and energy to produce quality philosophy, not using it to navigate a hostile bureaucratic process to earn the right to even enter into the discourse.
To address the structural disadvantage as it presents itself in the philosophizing itself, I would think that part of the answer is to include critical work in philosophy of disability on course syllabi at all levels. Philosophers who either experience disability themselves or who have close relationships with disabled people have been doing philosophy of disability for decades. I am thinking of you, Shelley, as well as scholars like Susan Wendell, Anita Silvers, Eva Kittay, Ron Amundson, Licia Carlson, and others.
Given that most everyone in this “first generation” of philosophers of disability continues to produce important work, it may seem absurd to suggest that there is a “second generation” of philosophers of disability. However, I do think there is now a cadre of philosophers of disability, in which I include myself, who have been heavily influenced by the earlier work because we spent a good chunk of our philosophical education reading it.
These categories aren’t completely clean-cut, of course, but I would name Steve Campbell, Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, Melinda Hall, Elizabeth Barnes, Adam Cureton, Sean Aas, Joel Reynolds, Christine Wieseler, and Kevin Timpe, among many others, who, though at various stages of their career, have been influenced by the work of the earlier philosophers of disability. My point is this: there is now a growing body of philosophical work out there that cuts across many of the core areas of philosophy and is NOT alienating to disabled students, but rather is grounded, to some degree, in their experience of the world. Including this work in the classroom is not just an essential part of good pedagogy; it also holds the potential for helping to bring more disabled people into the profession.
Lastly—and this is probably the most controversial of my recommendations—I would argue that accessibility and pedagogy won’t be enough to remediate the structural disadvantage experienced by disabled students and scholars; so, some kind of affirmative action plan must be put in place. I’m not sure exactly what the details of such a program could look like, but I would think that actively recruiting disabled graduate students and faculty would be a part of it.
Thank you for your very generous remarks about this interview series, Joe Are there articles, books, or other resources that you would like to recommend on any of the topics that we have discussed in this interview?
In addition to the work of the scholars that I listed above, as well as Robert Murphy’s book to which I referred in answer to your first question, I’d strongly recommend Jackie Leach Scully’s important book Disability Bioethics: Moral Bodies, Moral Difference. While it’s specifically about bioethics and not philosophy as a whole, it’s central argument is about how the practices of bioethics are alienating to disabled people and, thus, excludes their moral knowledge. It’s very relevant to the point that I made about how philosophizing itself can present structural disadvantages.
Joe, thanks for offering both a vivid account of your activism and thoughtful remarks about the structural disadvantages that philosophy imposes. Your remarks throughout this interview have been invigorating.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Joe Stramondo’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, January 18th at 8 a.m. EST for the twenty-second 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.