On the dearth of disabled access information in philosophical events

A sign for disabled access at at University that reads: 'Elevator to Gym. For Disabled Only. Call 4-3441 or 4-7149 for Assistance.' The message is repeated underneath in braille. As a "practical joke" someone has changed 'For Disabled Only' to 'For Abled Only' and scrubbed out the 'i' in ' Assistance'. Image from InSapphoWeTrust via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Out of all the conference and workshop announcements in philosophy that you see in any given month, how many mention what access arrangements, if any, are in place to permit disabled philosophers to participate in the event?

Since I wrote about why event organisers should provide access information up front back in October 2014, I am pleased to say that the answer to this question is more than none. Nevertheless, it is still far from commonplace to see mention of access information in conference announcements and workshop websites. Sometimes access is mentioned, but not described, and inquiries must be made to learn whether scooters can get to rooms, whether rooms will have hearing loops, and whether food will be safe for intolerant bellies.

I wrote before about the experience of being a disabled academic interested in attending academic events which is, of course, part and parcel of what it means to be an academic. The notice arrives, by email or twitter. You open a message or click a link to find out more, and not without some trepidation. This is because the information you need is, too often, absent. Opportunities to participate in exciting philosophical discourse are, for me, usually also opportunities to pick up some extra administrative work and to put down any sense I might have that the discipline expects bodies like mine to be there.

I have long since disabused myself of the naive belief that I might be able to be a philosopher first, and a body that “requires accommodation” second. We must all work to be here, no doubt, but some of us make others of us work that much harder to do so, whether they know it or not. This is so even when commitments to accessability are commitments to respond to individual requests for access, rather than a commitment to ensuring that those with differentiated access needs can assess whether those needs will be met without having to ask. These two commitments are not incompatible, of course. This makes it all the more perplexing why the latter is so often thought to be covered, sometimes even trumped, by the former.

In truth, I don’t really want to talk about access any more. It is exhausting, and it is boring. It represents a distraction from the more important, more interesting things I have think about, like grappling with questions of justice and the polity and ideology and social epistemology. And yet, merely being a disabled philosopher with differentiated access needs means that I can’t help but need to talk about access if I want to participate in philosophical spaces. It’s reasonable for me to want to think about these other things, rather than the access thing. After all, I’m a research-council funded PhD candidate, essentially being paid to have these thoughts and try and corral them into written sense, with 19 months of funding left, and all the complications of finding academic work while disabled still to come. But, apparently, philosophy as a discipline seems to think it’s also reasonable for me to think and talk about access too, and before I talk about anything else. This is despite the fact that when I and others talk, I’m not entirely sure how much philosophy is listenining.

The past month has provided much to ground this weary sense of the need for continued conversation. I wanted to attend the recent and spectacular-looking Yale Ideology conference, which was a pipe-dream anyway since I’m in the UK, but was disheartened to see that even if I was to figure out the finances to attend, I would have had to out myself as someone with a disability to one of the organisers, a senior figure my subdiscipline and the subject at large, yet again putting the disabled me before the philosopher me in our first interactions. I saw a call for papers for an undergraduate conference on “Women and Minorities in Philosophy” that made no reference to disability or to access needs until this absence was pointed out by this disabled philosopher. I saw an announcement for a workshop on the work of Iris Young, who theorises structural injustice and its reproduction that bothered to note that the venue was on the second floor, but not whether those with mobility aids could reach it. And, while I was struggling to string thoughts together about these instances, I learned of a workshop on the philosophy of disability taking place in the UK, a rare enough event in itself, that made no reference whatsoever to accessibility arrangements nor offered instruction on how one might find out about them (although this has since been amended by the organisers in response to this being pointed out).

If philosophers are in the business of identifying underlying assumptions and unstated entailments, what is a disabled philosopher to make of the persistent absence of access information in conference announcements, or of access arrangements predicated on an act of request?

Do we detect an assumption that we will either not be among the likely participants, or that if we are, our access needs will have been met in virtue of an event being scheduled into a building with lifts and ramps? Would we detect an entailment that if we do need differentiated access, it is justified for us disabled philosophers to have to make extra efforts compared to our nondisabled colleagues?

There is hope for change, thankfully. More people are willing to hear these arguments and to respond positively to them. Rich Cordero recently emailed PhilEvents (an online database of upcoming events in academic philosophy including conference announcements and calls for papers) about encouraging event announcers to include access information and was met with a positive response, although the details of how this might be achieved is still unclear. Aidan McGlynn at the Univeristy of Edinburgh’s Philosophy Department recently confirmed that he is looking to get access information included within departmental announcements as a matter of department policy. Prof Alessandra Tanesini recently informed me that the Society for Women in Philosophy UK (SWIP UK) is drafting an accessible events policy for all future events.

These are the sorts of structural changes that could make a real difference in improving the prevalence of access information on announcements across the discipline. These are the sorts of changes that would reflect a shift towards assuming that disabled people are members of the philosophical community and that, while of course they should be able to make individuated requests for access arrangements, the availability of such arrangements should depend not on such requests but on organisers who, in presuming their membership, make efforts to ensure that their events are accessible and who communicate the fruits of such efforts from the start. These are the sorts of changes that would mean that I and others could stop talking about access, for a change.

For more information on how to make events, including conferences and workshops accessible, see this post from Shelley Tremain at the Discrimination & Disadvantage blog which, while focused on the United States, provides information useful beyond this geographic context.

This post originally appeared on Zara Bain’s personal blog. Zara is an AHRC-funded PhD student in Philosophy at the Universities of Bristol and Cardiff. She founded PhDisabled in October 2013. She hopes that she will eventually find some time between trying to do her PhD, accessing her discipline, and trying to improve access in her discipline to get the wheels of PhDisabled turning again.

Image: ‘Practical Joke, Colombia University’ by InSapphoWeTrust via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.



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