Sunday, December 11, 2016

How can we think philosophically about disability?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "Philosophy and Disability" with guest Anita Silvers. Click here to listen to the episode.


I want to have a philosophical discussion about disability, but before we begin, it is worth asking how we can philosophize about a subject that is either invisible to most people, or deeply embarrassing. It is invisible because we think little of the ramps we walk up or the braille on the ATM. When we use the most obvious reminder of living with a disability—the extra-wide toilet stall in a public restroom—we are either anxious that we are going to be in someone’s way who needs it, or relieved that we found a stall big enough to comfortably hang our big coats and heavy work bags. Where to hang your big coat is not a trivial issue in North Dakota.

Disability is embarrassing to address because we don’t like to call attention to people’s impairments or conditions. We are uncomfortable highlighting someone’s difference unless we perceive it as positive or worth celebrating. But, of course whether someone with a disability is to be considered different at all is a philosophical question, and it is unclear whether pathologizing disability is even useful. I’ve already used the terms “impairment” and “condition” in my introduction and I don’t quite know what new information this brings to the table. Also, I’ve already implied that my audience is looking at disability from afar, not experiencing it. I’ve actually reaffirmed the invisibility of the disabled while attempting to call attention to them.