Disabling Philosophy in the Canadian Context

May 19, 2022
Dave Hazzan, PhD candidate in History at York University; Congress 2022 blog contributor

Audrey Yap, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria, chaired a series of presentations about disability philosophy in the Canadian context at Congress on Wednesday, hosted by the Canadian Philosophical Association. Among the many fascinating insights shared, a key takeaway was that disability is not something that just exists like the air — it is manufactured, has ideologies, and is a source of oppression that must be overcome.

The presentations began with Isaac (YunQi) Jiang, doctoral candidate in philosophy at McMaster University, who spoke about “Disability and Infrastructural Phenomenon.” Jiang noted that infrastructure gained its more expansive current use during the Cold War, giving the term its ideological origins, as it was used to construct Cold War ideologies. Within academia, infrastructure has long been used in social theory for deep and abiding structures.

Jiang defines “infrastructural thinking” as a relation between infrastructure and thinking. “Instead of preformed subjects thinking about something we are not already implicated in, we always think through, with, and sometimes against the affordances and limitations of the various assemblages we inhabit.” It isn’t just how we think through these assemblages, but how they “think” through us.

Infrastructure exercises its power by generating the “Normate Template,” which “takes for granted as neutral a particular white, European, masculine, youthful, unmarked, able-bodied person” and that disabled people need to navigate. The lived experience of being disabled is not just about being in a certain kind of body, but involves constant negotiation with the way the disabled are “storied” by infrastructure and as such, and how they fold these bodies into apparatuses of legibility.

Amandine Catala, Associate Professor of Philosophy at UQAM, delivered her presentation on “Academic Excellence and Structural Epistemic Injustice for Disabled Philosophers.” In it, she queried how traditional criteria for academic excellence create structural epistemic injustices for disabled philosophers. This can include testimonial injustice, hermeneutical injustice, and excellence and structural epistemic injustice, all of which can work against disabled scholars. To qualify as ‘excellent,’ disabled philosophers must conform to ableist norms. The myth of the ‘ideal knower/scholar/student’ — someone who is cis, white, male, non-disabled, and with no housekeeping or caregiving duties — is the ideal used when evaluating all students’ work. 

What we need, Catala argues, is inclusion, not integration; equity, not equality.

When it comes to EDI, we need to note the importance of inclusion and equity as well as diversity. We should rethink excellence as a property of academic communities, and adopt norms that foster excellence based on universal design – nothing about us, without us. Catala ended by interrogating the concept of the “supercrip,” which shows us the unjust nature of standards that are considered reasonable or excellent.

Emily R. Douglas, a doctoral graduate in philosophy at McGill University, presented on “Chronic Considerations: Chronic Illness, Disability, and Temporal Pathologies.” She argued that philosophy, and feminist philosophy specifically, need to interrogate chronicity in their work on time, taking to task the phenomenologists who take non-normative temporalities as pathologizing.

What happens, Douglas asked, if we think about queer, crip temporalities through illness through the very bodily changes? To centre these changes is to take them seriously, she argued, not as additions to time, nor as symptoms of proof of normative time. She argued that phenomenology accounts make two large mistakes: they reify time as static and regimented, and they assume the disabled have past experiences of “past time” before they were disabled. Douglas would like to see philosophers focus not on the pathology of chronicity, but on how chronicity and timing is a focus of stigma and discrimination. Douglas concluded by using “agitation” as an example of how temporality can work in “crip time” outside the norms of other time.

Shelley Tremain, an independent researcher, discussed “Disaster Ableism and the Mystique of Bioethics.” Tremain argued that bioethics is an instructional method of ableism. Critical analyses of ableism by bioethicists don’t appreciate coercive and regulative character of power. Bioethics is a neoliberal technology of government and eugenics, and works in the service of “normalization,” shielding philosophy departments from an “influx” of disabled scholars and discussions of the philosophy of disability.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for all levels of government and administration in Canada to engage in what Tremain called “disaster ableism,” exploiting the pandemic and the circumstances around it for eugenic goals and ableist agendas. The most egregious example of this is Bill C-7, which, Tremain argued, rather than simply being an assisted suicide law, “significantly expands neo-eugenics in Canada” by making early death easier to access than ways to live with disability. Tremain ended by noting that none of this is new, but in fact harkens back to Canada’s long colonialist legacy of eugenics.

The session ended with Alex Bryant, a doctoral student in philosophy at UBC, who spoke about “The Metaphor of Disability in Ideology Critique.” He began by arguing that even in liberatory philosophy, too often scholars use metaphors of disability — for example, “blind eye” — which pathologize disability as deficit, and make clear that living with a disability is living a “lesser” life.

In the second section of his presentation, Bryant focused on ideology, and how critiques of ideology also use disability metaphors, how “a notion of cognitive impairment is mobilized to make sense of the ‘flaw’ in ‘flawed ideology.’” In Section III, Bryant looked at the Philosophical Imaginary, and harked back to a 2011 dispute over the use of the term “blind-review”. He ended with the observation that if the disembodied mind is the goal of philosophy, then the “mad” mind is its antithesis — a key challenge for disability philosophy.

Big Thinking logo

Shift in thinking: It all begins with decolonization

Big Thinking at Congress 2022 Shift in thinking: It all begins with decolonization Time and time again over the last decade, global catastrophes have shown that the stage for disaster has been set by colonial and racial subjugation. These...