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Thomas Nadelhoffer


This is where definitions matter quite a bit. You ask us to consider how many disabled philosophers we have on our faculty. But absent a very clear definition of "disability," one can't even begin to undertake such an accounting. Does chronic pain count? Do people with major depression or bi-polar count? How about people with social anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder? This is why the "invisible vs. visible" (not my language) issue that we discussed here a while back matter. My suspicion is that if mental disabilities count, most departments will have far more disabled philosophers than if these disabilities don't count. So, from the outset, we need a clear definition of what counts. Either way, thanks for raising yet another important issue (and keeping this blog going).

p.s. I had reconstructive neck surgery this past Tuesday (for the second time in twenty years), so the chronic pain issue is especially salient for me!

Shelley Tremain

Hi Thomas, I wasn't expecting to get a comment from you, given that you have been pretty busy lately! I hope everything is working out for you.

I want to respond to a few things that you mention. First, it seems to me that your remarks above suggest that unless we have a clear definition, we are excluding some people. That seems like an odd formulation to me.

I think it comes down to a question of identification and how we think of (under)representation. Does someone identify as disabled? If not, should we count them as disabled anyway? Would we do that for (say) women who have sex with women but don't identify as lesbians or bisexual or queer? That is, would we say that lesbians are well represented (say) in a certain department by counting the women who sleep with women but don't identify in one of the aforementioned ways or are "closeted"? I think that would be both politically and ethically questionable.

Your claim that if we count (what you refer to as) "mental disabilities", there would be far more disabled people in departments than if we don't, suggests that their inclusion was not assumed in my question, as well as seems to disregard the data (for instance, in the very article to which I link) that shows that people who been psychiatrized, cognitively impaired, etc. face grievous discrimination and bias in hiring and employment and are even more disadvantaged in this regard than people who are disabled in other ways. Maybe you want to claim that philosophy departments are somehow distinct (more "accepting") from other areas of the academy and society at large when it comes to inclusion of faculty who have been psychiatrized, are cognitively disabled, etc., but I am not inclined to accept that claim without some evidence, especially given what we know about how homogeneous philosophy departments are. Indeed, I know enough under- and unemployed philosophers who fit that description to make me very skeptical of that claim. A number of my past and future interviewees in the Dialogues on Disability series fit that description.

On that note, back to definitions. I remain unconvinced that we need a clear definition of what "a disability" is. First, I want to point out to you (again) that I don't conceptualize disability as you do. I and an increasing number of philosophers of disability and disability theorists eschew the conception of disability according to which it is a property or characteristic of individuals. My own view is that disability is an apparatus, in Foucault's sense of the term. Second, I have been running the Dialogues on Disability series absent any clear definition of disability; that is, I haven't told potential interviewees that they have to meet certain criteria, beyond the fact that they should identify as disabled. Then again, if you recall, in my very first interview with Bryce, he was ambivalent about whether he should identify as disabled.

Thomas Nadelhoffer


You're right, in the wake of the surgery, I have very limited time to spend on the computer. But since I thought your question was important and the issue pressing, I thought I would revisit my old concern. The title of the post had to do with how many disabled philosophers we each have on our respective faculties. That doesn't require a clear definition--e.g., in terms of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions--but it does seem to require us to have some lose definition such that we know whether blindness or deafness count in a way that majorly depressed doesn't. The issue of identification you raise is especially germane since I think people are more likely to self-identify as disabled if they are blind or deaf than if they are majorly depressed or suffering chronic pain. But whether they self-identify could be influenced by how "invisible" disabilities are viewed, stigmatized, mitigated, etc. So, I am not sure self-identification is the best route to go here. I self-identify as disabled owing to chronic pain. But perhaps a colleague with similar circumstances doesn't consider herself disabled. This compounds the problem of aggregating per your suggestion! So, I thought this might be a nice time to revisit an issue that has been idle for some time here on the blog--but which I think it is important (especially when the issue is under-representation). That people with invisible disabilities may be even more discriminated against and stigmatized than people with non-invisible ones makes the matter all the more important. That said, I need to get back to horizontal. I can only be vertical in small increments for the next few weeks!

Shelley Tremain

Thomas, I don't think we need a definition. You suggest that we need to determine whether blindness is a disability and depression is not. I don't think that needs to be done at all. I also don't think the issue of self-identification compounds the problem. I think that the issue of "counting" disabled people and definitions of who is in the category, and who is not, have governed disabled people, individualizing and medicalizing a social and political state of affairs. I recognize that certain people are more stigmatized than others and this often conditions whether people identify publicly as disabled. In fact, I have lots of first-hand experience of that phenomenon. Your claim seems to be "even if someone doesn't think she's disabled, if she fits our definition, she should count as disabled." I disagree. I think that idea violates many of the beliefs about personal integrity and self-respect that we should safeguard. In other words, such concerns seem to be good reasons why we shouldn't have definitions of what a disability is to determine whether improvements with respect to representation have been made. Indeed, I think that our disagreement turns on how we each conceive of "representation" not only on how we conceive of "disability" . I don't think that a department is doing well with respect to its representation of disabled people if there are two people on its faculty who would be defined as disabled according to some official definition but who don't think of themselves in that way and don't want others to think of them in that way. For one thing, those two people are not very likely to be, or want to be, good role models for disabled students and other potential disabled colleagues. Yet, the presence of role models is one of the most important reasons why faculty rosters ought to be representative, in addition to the very important reasons that arise with respect to social justice. I should point out that, given that I don't think there should be a definition of disability to motivate efforts around representation of disabled philosophers, my question wasn't intended to get people to actually try to make departmental tallies (although some people on my fb page did!). Rather, I wanted to make people think about the fact that disability should be addressed in a significant way in discussions about (under)representation, inclusion, diversity, etc. in philosophy. I know that we agree that disability and disabled philosophers are usually left out of these conversations and efforts, that disability is really not addressed in any informed and considered way.

Thomas Nadelhoffer

A real quick clarification: I wasn't so much suggesting that we should use the definition I think we need (however fuzzy at the boundaries it might be) to include some people who might not self-identify as disabled philosophers. Rather, I was suggesting that we use the definition to encourage more philosophers who do count as disabled to self-identify as such. My sense is that lots of people who live with chronic pain (just to pick a personal example) but who do not qualify for disability payments from the government don't consider themselves as disabled. I don't think this is right--that is, I think the conception of disability we use ought to be more inclusive so that more people who have disabilities self-identify as such. Just to stick with the chronic pain example. I know of at least one more colleague of mine who lives in chronic pain. I am not sure whether she considers herself disabled or not. But I think she should. I cannot make that argument without an account of disability. Or so it seems to me...

Shelley Tremain

Hi Thomas, sorry I'm slow in acknowledging your last comment, but I have been dealing with a dog crisis for the last 18 hours.

I want to note, first, that many people who do consider themselves disabled do not qualify for government disability support. In the U.K., disabled people are routinely denied or cut off their benefits, given the policies that the Cameron government has brought into effect and the situation is getting worse. Here in Ontario, most applicants for disability support are initially denied benefits and must appeal this decision, waiting two or three years for a final decision to be rendered. So, I don't think that one's fulfillment of the criteria for disability benefits is a very good gauge of much other than the current political climate in the jurisdiction in which one resides at the time.

What I find most interesting about your comment is the claim that there are people who don't identify as disabled but should and that we need a definition that includes these people. I think we don't need a definition of disability that is inclusive so that more people such as your colleague self-identify. I think what we need is for more people to know about and understand ableism and accessibility. This, I think, will make more people self-identify. Why do you think your colleague should consider herself as disabled and that she needs a definition of disability to do that? If you think your colleague should consider herself as disabled (though she does not now do so) because at present she doesn't understand her rights and entitlements, and what she is owed in terms of accessibility, that she does not avail herself of these, then, what she needs is to learn more about these rights and entitlements and to think critically about ableism and disability. She doesn't need a definition of who counts as disabled to do that. Or, so it seems to me. :)

Thomas Nadelhoffer


I wasn't suggesting that the formal requirements for being granted the legal status of disabled were good (or the right) requirements, I was pointing out that people who view disability narrowly in the legal sense will be less inclined to view themselves as disabled if their "condition" falls short of the legal standard. For instance, while I have lived in chronic pain for 20+ years, I wouldn't qualify for disability here in the US. As such, it's more difficult to view myself as *properly* or *fully* disabled. Indeed, for a long time, I didn't view my chronic pain as a disability at all because it didn't rise to a sufficient level of seriousness (legally speaking). I suspect lots of people feel this way--namely, "disabled" is (and ought to be?) reserved for people who receive governmental services and support. If this is true, then lots of people won't view themselves as having a disability even if they should.

Second, your final paragraph actually highlights (rather than undercuts) the need for a definition. When talking about qualifying for rights, entitlements, accessibility issues, etc., one must have some loose account of disability in mind. Otherwise, the mere fact that someone happens to self-identify as disabled would qualify him/her for these rights, entitlements, etc. But that can't be right. There has to be some standard here. I am simply suggesting that standard, whatever it happens to be, will end up taking the shape of a definition. If you don't have a guideline for determining who qualifies for accommodations, access, how do you determine who gets them?

Shelley Tremain

Thomas, I continue to disagree with you. First, to repeat what I've said before, I don't regard disability as a characteristic of individuals as you do and as you seem to want me to do. I refuse that conception of disability. Second, the thing is that I manage to organize around accessibility, ableism, and disability without having a definition of the sort you want; I and others seem to get things done without ever articulating a common definition of disability.

You seem to have construed my remark about claims to entitlement and rights very narrowly to refer to government payments and services. But that's not how I was using the term in my comment above nor was it implied by the initial post. Furthermore, your last sentence really encapsulates the problem of thinking of entitlements in individualistic terms, that is, in terms of "accommodating" individuals.

I think in terms of universal design and accessibility which focuses on arranging social contexts to ensure that diverse populations can inhabit them. I don't at all think that we should resign ourselves to making modifications to social contexts in order to "accommodate" certain individuals who qualify for the modifications because they meet certain predetermined criteria. (I articulate this argument quite explicitly in my article "Introducing Feminist Philosophy of Disability"). I think that I am entitled not to be discriminated against, not to experience ableism in my dealings with colleagues. I don't need someone else's definition or standard of disability to know that, nor to know if I have been discriminated against or subjected to ableism. Instead, I draw upon the knowledge that has accrued to me from the writings about ableism and disability discrimination of other disability theorists and activists, of feminists, anti-racist thinkers, etc., as well as reflections upon my past experiences and the experiences of others, and so on.

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