Accessing Philosophy: On Disability and Academic Philosophy

Last week, I had the great privilege to be invited to speak with Cambridge University’s Women In Philosophy group on the subject of disability and academic philosophy.

I wanted to share the piece with you to learn what you think. It is a long piece, around 3800 words, modified from my Cambridge talk. Spoken, it comes in at just over 20 minutes.

When I presented, the only people currently working on and within academic philosophy who attended were the three people I spoke to to organise the talk. No one else from Cambridge’s Philosophy department came. We suspected this was because it was a busy part of term, and we had only given a week’s lead time to advertise the event. It happens. But, still.

While I was researching how disability and accessibility in teaching and learning are handled at Cambridge, I learned that Philosophy stands out amongst the few departments who schedule annual training for starting postgraduate teachers (“Graduate Supervisors”) dedicated specifically to access issues. Even so, none of the few philosophers I met were familiar with this training.

The day after the talk, I found myself thinking, if only I could give this talk to a room that included as many of Cambridge’s teaching staff in philosophy as I could persuade to give me twenty minutes of their time.

And then, I thought, if only I could give this talk as a prelude to a serious workshop-slash-discussion about what other experiences might “come up” for disabled philosophers, like me, and unlike me, so that we could, immediately, in that room, generate a series of practical injunctions that could be implemented, and be encouraged to be implemented, to ensure that things are better for disabled philosophers right now.

I imagined giving this talk  to departments all over the place, as the prelude to precisely the kind of discipline-specific accessibility training somewhere like Cambridge already offers. I liked this imagining, because I am a disabled student and a frustrated not-teaching teacher, although I suspect my supervisors and funding council might prefer me to spend the next 18 months not thinking about disability and academic philosophy and think instead about the PhD. The chance would be a fine, fine, thing.

None of this is the subject matter of my PhD, although there are some important connections. Still, I reasoned, perhaps in return for this unpaid service work the fruits of which almost certainly won’t be seen by the time my PhD is done 18 months from now, some departments might see their way to “pay” me by letting me talk about the stuff my PhD is actually on.

Who knows. But what I do know is that it is only by talking about this disability stuff, in addition to my PhD stuff, that I have any hope of a reasonable workload as a disabled person pursuing a career in philosophy, or perhaps, of pursuing a career in philosophy at all.

I would love to know what you think, to all of the above, and all of the below.

Thanks are due to everyone who read and commented on drafts of the talk, including Andrew Puzzo, Shelley Tremain, Rich Cordero, Jake Jackson, Alessandra Tanesini, Daniel Goldberg, Claudia Gilberg, and Cordelia Yu. Thanks are also due to Robin Zheng, Elisif Wasmuth and Magali Krasny at Cambridge who organised the talk, and to Jenny Harris and Talitha Kearey whose invitation to speak at Cambridge’s Graduate Ethical Teaching Forum prompted its composition.


The Talk: “Accessing Philosophy: On Disability and Academic Philosophy”


How many philosophers do you know, work with, or teach, who identify as disabled, or who would, under the legal definition provided by the Equality Act 2010, count as “disabled”? Who among us would know that it is like to be “a disabled philosopher”?

According to British law, a person is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that “has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long term’ negative effect” on their ability to do “normal daily activities”. As far as the law is concerned, “disabled people” includes those with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD), mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. It includes those who identify impairment as “difference”, like neurodiverse and Deaf communities. It includes visible and invisible “impairments”, and chronic and acute, terminal and non-life-threatening conditions.

Where are all the disabled philosophers?

While the standard, public conception of disability typically invokes the figure of the wheelchair user it would be inaccurate to presume that we can always “see” who is disabled in academic philosophy. And if disability cannot be seen, it must be declared, as captured by the practice of “disclosing” one’s disability, which one may choose to do or not, and for all sorts of complicated reasons, but which is a prerequisite for receiving support justified on its basis.

Sometimes, this unseeability is offered to blunt the claim that academic philosophy lacks disabled philosophers. We do not know who is disabled, so how can we know whether disabled philosophers are underrepresented? Yet, if our philosophical spaces do not include many who we would think of as visibly disabled, this should still prompt us to ask where those philosophers are, among those who might be disabled but otherwise non-disclosing.

I use “disabled philosopher” in at least two senses. First, as per the legal definition, I include those who would not necessarily identify as disabled if they did not consider chronic illness, mental illness, or learning difficulties to be disabilities, but who are nonetheless covered by the legal definition. This delineates the remit of those to whom responsibilities are owed by private and public institutions and their agents, at least in the standard legal sense. The second usage is pertinent to attempts to quantify how many disabled philosophers there are based on whether they identify as disabled and are willing to disclose this identification, as happens in the collection of demographic data by professional associations.

Importantly, the experiences of disabled philosophers are not homogenous. But their heterogeneity should not preclude the possibility of commonality of experiences which, when repeated across time, place, persons, and institutions begin to look like patterns, even if this is only so for some subsection of the population of disabled philosophers. Generalisations would be a mistake, but pattern-detection would not, especially if such patterns cause or constitute injustices.

Here, I want to do two main things: first, I want to ask, how many disabled philosophers there are, and ought we expect there to be more? Second, I want to talk about some of my own experiences as a disabled person who is also a person working toward professional qualifications in philosophy, with the hope of pursuing, and to some extent, continuing, a career in academic philosophy. Being disabled fundamentally shapes my experience as someone seeking to participate in academic philosophical spaces. I suspect there are important conclusions to be drawn about the subject matter and methods of philosophy from autobiographical experiences such as mine, although I am not yet clear on how to do this. I am hopeful that you can help me.

How many disabled philosophers are there?

How many disabled philosophers do we know about within Anglo-American philosophy? The APA’s last round of demographic reporting revealed an increase of 105 more members identifying as disabled in 2015 than in 2014, a 45% increase from 230 to 335. And yet, this represented only 1.2% increase in the proportion of APA members identifying as disabled, from 2.5% in 2014 to 3.7% in 2015. In their 2013 Equity Survey, the Canadian Philosophical Association reports that for people with disabilities “the situation is much better than in 1990, but the situation is nonetheless still one of fairly dramatic underrepresentation”, with only one “tenure-line faculty” reporting a disability in the 2013 study, representing 0.3% of the total respondent pool. While the authors suspect this result to be unreliable, this is only because it represents such a significant drop from 2001-9 where the “number hovered between 1.5% and 2% total” or five to seven respondents (3-4). The claim to underrepresentation makes sense against the estimated 20-25% of the North American population who are thought to be disabled.

No such data exists for the UK. Browsing the pages of the British Philosophical Association (BPA) reveals no mention of “disability”, or “disabled”, and the only mention of “accessibility” lives in a repository of “articles and reports on pedagogy in philosophy” in the title of a non-terminating link entitled ‘Philosophy, objectivity & accessibility.’ While the BPA and the Society for Women in Philosophy UK (SWIP UK) report from 2011 represents an important intervention in improving representation and climate for women philosophers, not one mention is made of the words “disability” or “disabled”. The same appears to be true for the SWIP website.

It is nonetheless true that the attention of professional associations has begun to shift towards disability. The BPA is currently working with Minorities and Philosophy on projects aimed at improving representation in the discipline and understanding the experiences of marginalised groups. MAP have produced guidelines for how to make philosophy events – workshops, conferences, and so on – accessible, with information on how to secure additional funding to support accessible event planning, with support from SWIP. These new initiatives are welcome, and all of these organisations contribute fantastic work to the discipline, but it is nevertheless still true that these organisations have not, so far, prioritised disabled philosophers.[1]

In the UK case, then, we cannot say exactly how many disabled philosophers there are because we do not know. But we can look at other data to help us build a picture of how things might be for a disabled philosopher, and how likely we might be to encounter one, whether we know it or not. According to the Office for National Statistics, disabled people make up 16% of the working age population in the UK. The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) reports that the average percentage of undergraduate students disclosing a disability in UK higher education is 10%. This figure drops steadily, with only 6.1% of postgraduate students – taught and research – disclosing a disability. Moving up the academic ladder, Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data reveals that representation of disabled people amongst academic staff drops again to just 3.8%. Only 2.7% of all professors identifying as disabled. 10% to 7% to 4% to 2.9%, out of a working age population of 16%.[2]

These figures describe the representation of disabled people along the “academic pipeline” of higher education. They suggest that the “dramatic underrepresentation” of disabled people in academic philosophy identified by the CPA is paralleled by the overall numbers for UK Higher Education.

It is an empirical question whether academic philosophy would report higher or lower numbers of disabled staff or students than the overall UK average. Since these overall figures are roughly in line with APA numbers for the United States, which are even more generous than the CPA’s findings, we might offer a conservative estimate that the percentage of UK philosophers who would report a disability if asked would be somewhere between 2% and 4%. This would be, at best, 12% less of the total proportion of the UK philosophy population than would need to identify and disclose as disabled to bring representation in academic philosophy into line with the UK working age population at large.

We have not yet asked how many disabled philosophers are also members of other demographic groups who are underrepresented and marginalised within the discipline, but we should.

And we ought also to acknowledge that disabled philosophers, student and academic, are also disabled citizens, and inquire about their current socio-political context. In general, the overwhelming response from disability rights campaigners is that the current UK context is catastrophic.

What is being a disabled philosopher like?

What does it take for disabled philosophers – or disabled people more broadly – to access philosophical spaces? And what can thinking about access tell us about why there might be so few disabled philosophers?

“Access” is a word that is frequently associated with disability. Tanya Titchkosky describes the notion of “accessibility” as a “perceptual tool” that informs a “form of oriented social action” in which disability (and non-disability) “come to make an appearance.” (2011) Paying attention to how access works orients us towards how disability exists in academic institutions. It also provokes questions: access to what, for whom, where, when, and predicated upon which conditions.

As a disabled philosopher, I most commonly encounter “access” as a question. Consider, for example, event announcements. An interesting thing is happening somewhere. I’d like to go, if I can afford it. But then I remember that I need to ask about access: can I get into the room? Will I be able to participate when I am there? And at what level of functionality, taking into account which costs, will be available to me while there?

I have an energy impairment that means I experience chronic fluctuating exhaustion and pain, plus immunological and cognitive dysfunction, which interacts with a range of other impairments. I use a mobility scooter to get around, typically after parking as close as I can to a venue using my disabled parking badge. I cannot stand for long periods of time, though I can (sometimes) walk short distances, and can (sometimes) walk up stairs although doing so costs me energy I need to use for things like concentrating, listening, and talking. At conferences and events, I record whatever I can attend, when I remember to, but only with permission from the speaker or participants, which I must get every time I require it. I do this to remove the requirement to make notes, although sometimes I still handwrite them because I find moving the pen helps me pay attention. I cannot eat gluten or dairy foods. I cannot travel to or from and attend an event on the same day, and even without doing this, I still cannot make it through a full day of an academic event. I will have to miss sessions to rest somewhere quiet and preferably secure and hope that someone else is recording or livetweeting them. I will probably have to avoid socialising during breaks, and often have to miss opportunities to attend event dinners because this depletes energy I need to travel home or need to participate for as much of a second day as I can if there is one. The consequences of participating in philosophical spaces like these is the need to rest, a best for a few days, and at worst, depending on what else is going on, for one, two, or more weeks.

There is a lot of information that I need to know whether an event is accessible. Some is more important than others: I can bother to bring my own food (since not eating is not an option, for health reasons) provided that I can get to the room, or into the building, even if it’s through the carpark and a service elevator. Sometimes I can get recordings for sessions I must miss to rest, but often I can’t, unless this is something already planned for by organisers. I have found no feasible solution to missing informal opportunities for networking.

Sometimes when I ask about what accessibility measures are in place, I am met with information about whether a building is wheelchair-accessible and how to navigate using the lift. When I reply with the list of information I need – about disabled parking, bathrooms, menus, recording, and rest spaces – I wonder if my interlocutor finds the list as overwhelming as I do. It is overwhelming enough to need these things, let alone having to introduce the asking for them into acquaintances with philosophical colleagues.

It is overwhelming because it seems that there is so much stuff to think about it. But it seems like so much stuff only because two simple premises are true. First, it is overwhelming because we operate with a narrow conception of “disabled access”, and of “disability”, such that it could possibly be exhausted by pointing at a ramp. Second, it is overwhelming because access is not something we think about when planning and designing philosophical spaces, so it must be added on, after the planning work has been done by already busy, probably overstretched, philosophers.

Event announcements represent an opportunity for me to engage in a series of transactions with organisers. When I receive announcements, I must announce myself in return if I want to know whether I as a mobility aid user with “non-standard” access needs can access what is being announced. I am confronted with a differential access need in the literal sense of needing to declare myself as having such needs in order to find out whether they can or will be met. I cannot assume that my access needs can or will be met. I cannot assume that the organizers have planned for differential access needs, and if they don’t publicize what access arrangements are in place then I have no choice but to ask. The failure to provide access information means that those for whom access is “non-standard” must request “special accommodations” in the form of “reasonable adjustments”.

As a now long-in-the-tooth PhD student who has been in and out of graduate study for health and financial reasons for eleven years now, I increasingly want to participate in philosophical events as a speaker. While, thankfully, organisers are often happy to include my work in their events, I am still a disabled participant with access needs. And as someone who spends a lot of time on the internet writing frustrated posts about the absence of access information and its consequences for disabled philosophers, these situations have become opportunities for further announcement: that my participation is dependent on the organisers taking steps to ensure access information – whatever is or isn’t in place – is communicated on posters and notices, and again that, no, just saying whether a venue is wheelchair accessible is not sufficiently informative for those with a range of differential access needs. Sometimes I wish my nondisabled colleagues would caveat their participation similarly, but this is not something I have yet seen.

The upshot of this is differentiated effort for disabled philosophers with differentiated access needs to find out whether they can participate in philosophical spaces. This is despite there being relatively widespread understanding within universities that people cannot be “made” to disclose their disability. The prevailing approach is one which, even if it does not require that people disclose their specific diagnosis or difference, nevertheless commands a disclosure that one is disabled. And this is also despite there being relatively widespread understanding within universities – and within the context of UK law – that direct or indirect discrimination against disabled people is not in accordance with the requirements of justice.

In a recent blog post about this dearth of access information for philosophical events, I asked, since philosophers are in the business of identifying underlying assumptions and logical entailments, what might disabled philosophers make of the current prevailing “per request” model of securing differentiated access? I suggested that we might detect an assumption that disabled people with differentiated access needs are not among the likely participants of an event, and are presumed anomalous. On the other hand, one might infer that philosophers expect disabled colleagues but assume that a broad range of access needs will have been met in virtue of scheduling a conference into a university building. I was once told, after an entire conference of a prestigious professional organisation was changed venues to allow for scooter access, for me, which was announced at the start of the day, that the reason was because buildings were old, and not all of them had ramps. Clearly not all university buildings are wheelchair accessible, and it is not always because they are old.

I once wrote about the weekend of my mother’s first birthday after her death, which also happened to be the weekend I fell ill after tipping over the precipice of anxiety and immunological shutdown after receiving the good news that I had been invited to interview for a research council-funded PhD studentship. There was a lot going on. One thing that went on was the discovery that the interview venue was not accessible using my mobility scooter, so ad hoc arrangements had to be made for the panel to walk across campus just to interview me. Perhaps it is no bad thing to be memorable, but it is frustrating that among their first opportunities to remember me was through the obviousness of my differentiated access need and thus, my disability. This was despite the fact that I had disclosed my disability, including my use of a mobility scooter, multiple times in my application. I had assumed that doing this would have triggered some system whereby someone somewhere would have known that I would need a mobility-aid accessible interview room. It turned out that I was supposed to fill that role of someone, somewhere, and being that person nearly cost me the interview.

If in the first story disclosure is necessary for access, the second story reveals that it is not sufficient. There seems to be a presumption in academic spaces that access is a thing best offered on a per-request basis, even in cases where disclosure has already taken place. This presumption of self-advocacy – that disabled people ought to bear responsibility for being the primary instigators of consideration of disabled access – is rife, and it substantially increases administrative load for disabled academics in a way that is disadvantaging.

This presumption is intimately connected to the prevailing notion that accessibility involves “special accommodations” or “reasonable adjustments”. Here, accessibility is achieved by adding to “standard” practices “non-standard” measures to facilitate access, to render that which is standard accessible. This captures the way that accessibility is nonstandard, and that what is standard is not accessible. Thus, accessibility is non-standard. Members of the philosophical community with access needs arising from disability are by implication, non-standard. Our practices around accessibility reflect what our demographic data already shows.

I am willing to accept that these stories arose as the result of no malice: it is true that people are generally well-meaning, and once omissions are pointed out many respond positively by making accommodations or access information available. Nevertheless, such stories point to patterns of thinking and doing which, even without intending to, mandate disabled philosophers must make differential efforts to access philosophical spaces compared to our nondisabled peers.

I emphasise that this argument is not aimed at removing the possibility of disabled philosophers securing access through personalised request. It is, rather, aimed at the operational presumption that the primary means by which disabled philosophers ought to secure access is through such requests. Such a presumption entails that disabled philosophers have to do more work than nondisabled colleagues to participate in philosophical spaces. To be sure, they are not the only group in this situation, with carers, parents, and low-income colleagues among those who would also benefit from information about access to funding or childcare. But that does not blunt the force of the claim that it is a problem in case of disabled philosophers.

If we want to know where all the disabled philosophers are, we might spend some time thinking about the extent to which disabled people are able to access philosophical spaces, what they must do to do so, and what such processes reveal about whether they presumed to exist within the philosophical community.

What can be done? I propose that a good place to start would be something like an imperative of accessibility, or an accessibility heuristic. Access must cease to be something anomalous that follows around the one in twenty professional philosophers, or one in ten disabled students, who are willing (or have no choice but) to disclose differentiated access needs. Access ought, instead, be something that we as a philosophical community are committed to thinking about and implementing out of a recognition that this is what justice seems to require, at least as far as the law is concerned, and even if political and other philosophers have not yet quite caught up with it.

Access ought to become a habit, not an afterthought. Thinking about access and the presence and absence of disabled philosophers ought to be included within the current disciplinary soul-searching and hand-wringing about “diversity”, and the effects of implicit bias and stereotype threat on participation and performance by marginalised groups.[3] Anticipating disabled students and colleagues with differential access needs ought to become as automatic as anticipating that philosophers exist in temporally, spatially situated bodies that require food for sustenance. And as much as this is true for our habits around organising ad hoc events, it ought also to be true for our curriculum design, choice of pedagogical methods, deployment of canonical figures, texts and questions, and for our methods of assessment at undergraduate, taught postgraduate, and research postgraduate levels. It ought to be true for our hiring, interviewing and promotion practices, and for how we think about informal networking and opportunities for cross-institutional presentation of works in progress. And it certainly ought to be true for our reflections and actions around departmental and disciplinary climates, and on how our ways of thinking and talking might be contributing to the absence of all these missing disabled philosophers.

What I want to know now is what you all think. What are we to make of this supposed absence of disabled philosophers, and of the strange appearance of disability in philosophical spaces through assertions of a need for spaces to be rendered accessible? How might we use philosophical tools to better understand what is going on here? And what actions might we, or ought we, undertake to ensure better representation of disabled philosophers and their experiences doing philosophy?


[1] I want to note here that other important work is being done on philosophy by those who have struggled to find a place within professionalised academic philosophy, sometimes as the result of outright alienation. Of particular importance is the work of Shelley Tremain, who is currently not employed within professional philosophy but whose recent interview series, Dialogues on Disability, has provided a platform for disabled philosophers to talk about their experiences of philosophy, disability, and the conjunction of the two.

[2] ONS and ECU data reflects 2012/13 findings, while HESA data reflects 2013/14 findings.

[3] I confess to not having read enough of this literature, but at least two things strike me as salient: first, how can a disabled philosopher avoid the problem of stereotype threat if they are constantly being made to foreground their disability in encounters with professional and academic spaces; and second, how will measures taken to reduce implicit bias against disabled philosophers help them navigate what are, from this philosopher’s autobiographical perspective, clear structural and institutional biases that still occur even in the face of stated commitments to equality, diversity and, if we’re lucky, liberation.

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