Disability Studies

Improving Feminist Philosophy and Theory By Taking Account of Disability

The past few days I’ve been lazy/leisurely in my summer reading and identified a few articles to read from the 2013 special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly: “Improving Feminist Philosophy and Theory By Taking Account of Disability.”

In the introduction to the special issue, Shelly Tremain notes that this issue—and the articles that comprise it—is an effort to show the connections between “the marginalization of philosophy of disability within feminist and mainstream philosophy, the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers (however gendered or racialized) within the profession of philosophy, and the subordinated status of disabled people in society at large.”

I decided to read four: Melanie Yergeau’s “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind,” Heather Rakes’s “Toward a Theoretico-practical Accountability to Difference and Relationality,” Sami Schalk’s “Metaphorically Speaking: Ableist Metaphors in Feminist Writing,” and Aimi Hamraie’s “Designing Collective Access: A Feminist Disability Theory of Universal Design.”


In “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind,” Yergeau offers an autie-ethnographic (auto + autistic) narrative that both beautifully incorporates her own autistic experiences and pointedly critiques Theory of Mind (and the folks who subscribe to ToM). ToM has been used by philosophers, narrative theorists, even rhetoricians as a way to understand the autistic brain—more specifically, to understand how the autistic brain lacks empathy, an understanding of audience, the ability to connect to oneself and to others. ToM has been used as a measure of humanity, which creates the following dichotomy: “Humans are human because they possess a theory of mind, and autistics are inhuman because they do not.”

Yergeau turns to the body—the site where (folks commonly argue that) theory is actualized—to explore the violence that theory of mind enacts on autistic bodies. She considers what it means not in theory but in practice to “deny the autistic’s capacity for empathy, for perspective-taking, for self-reflection.” For rhetorical agency. In the vicious cycle of ToM that posits the existence of an autistic mind but not an autistic human, the autistic body is erased. Thus, the violence done to the autistic body is erased:

My argument here is that theories about ToM impact the autistic bodymind in material and violent ways. My argument here is that denying autistic selfhood and denying autistic corporeality and denying autistic rhetoricity reifies systemic abuse and ableism.

In line with the larger theme of the special issue, Yergeau identifies feminist rhetorical studies a space where we can identify and work to dismantle the oppression of ToM, and as she weaves this narrative of ToM, Yergeau also weaves a narrative of rhetoric.

So to circle back, Yergeau begins the essay by stating, “I am getting used to not existing, rhetorically speaking. I study rhetoric for a living. I teach it. I have a PhD in it. I breathe it. Rhetoric is everything and everywhere, many of my colleagues say. The exception to rhetoric’s everythingness and everywhereness is, of course, autism.” The autistic voice, she notes, is the “ultimate oxymoron” because autism has consistently been equated and conflated with the inability to communicate. Following this “logic,” autism denies folks rhetorical agency, the ability to understand and narrate others’ and their own experiences (“As a rhetorician, I am supposed to understand that autism prevents me from being a rhetorician).

Part of the beauty of this essay is the wonderful way it’s structured: circling and non-linear, refusing traditional structures, performative and hyper-aware of the way that the disjointed and self-focused nature of the essay mirrors the critiques of autistic narrative as “idiosyncratic, self-focused, ephemeral.” Thus, I see no reason to summarize the article from beginning to end, or to end with the conclusion. Instead, I’d like to end with this quotation (that falls somewhere in the middle of her article) about the collapsing of the rhetorical triangles because I think it forces those of us in rhet/comp to think critically about how we define the rhetor as a particular type of bodymind:

I interpret philosophical essays on autism as the collapsing of rhetorical triangles. In this reading, I am bombarded by representations of autistic people as non-rhetors—as non-rhetors who cannot emote (goodbye pathos), as non-rhetors who cannot recognize the mental states nor visualize the needs of the people around them (goodbye ethos), as non-rhetors whose logics are so mechanistic and rigid that their only comparable non-rhetor analogues are robots and chimpanzees (goodbye, logos).


The next article I read is “Toward a Theoretico-practical Accountability to Difference and Relationality.” Rakes argues that feminist philosophy and theory needs to pay attention and be accountable to disability (and power, normativity, and oppression). Importantly, she notes that disability has routinely been ignored in feminist theoretical practices and not included in the gender/race/class (or gender/race/sexuality) trio that is most commonly addressed. Feminist theoretical practices aren’t purposely exclusive to disability but are, instead, a product of how we relate our experiences to others.

In order to make this argument about accountability to difference, disability, and privilege, Rakes points to Eli Clare as a model of deeply accountable theory and self-reflection:

“Gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race…everything finally piling into a single human body. To write about any aspect of the body, means writing about this entire maze” (Clare 123).

Clare avoids a universal subject and privileging one type of oppression over another, instead showing how different oppressions relate and belong to each other. Rakes concludes by arguing, “Every thought and affect about who is here, in a given space, must be accompanied by acknowledgment and understanding of who is not, and why—of how gender, sexuality, disability, race, class, national origin, and age matter bodily and relationally.”

This is important in the context of Rakes’s argument, and it’s also important more broadly in the context of the work we do in higher ed—for example, who we invite and exclude into the university (both students and professors) and who we draw from and work with in the research that we conduct (who we cite and who/how we engage in our research).


In “Metaphorically Speaking: Ableist Metaphors in Feminist Writing,” Sami Schalk addresses the multiple ways in which disability is used as a metaphor in feminist texts. Schalk argues “that when feminists use metaphors of disability to represent the negative effects of patriarchy, they conceptually and theoretically position feminism and disability in opposition to each other and thereby imply that the goals of feminism are two-fold: to end patriarchy and to erase disability.”

The problem with metaphors, she notes, is that they assume a shared (universal) understanding of embodied experiences. And as is the problem with any presumption of universality, that presumption is almost always a nondisabled experience. Drawing on Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, Schalk notes that the problem with cognitive metaphor theory is that it assumes we have universal experiences of embodiment that inform our understandings and uses of metaphor. We evoke universal understandings of the body instead of actual, lived experiences of the body. An example is blindness (e.g., turn a blind eye, blind review). It’s a popular metaphor but not one that many people have experience with, so when it’s used as a metaphor, the metaphor is “based on the presumption of what the experience of blindness must be like, rather than the lived experience of blindness itself.”

Even metaphors that once had medical connotations that are now part of mainstream metaphors (e.g., retarded, lame, crazy) are still connected to “more widespread negative conceptions of disability.” No one says, “This party is lame” in a good way. No one describes “crippling pain” as a positive experience. Even though these words may be detached from their original meanings, they’re still imbued with (negative) values about disability.

Schalk ultimately advocates for an approach to metaphor that is critical of these mainstream assumptions and that rejects a universal experience:

An approach to metaphor that counters dominant assumptions and misunderstandings about disability, while simultaneously advancing the social and political values of disability studies and disability rights communities through new and innovative writing and reading of disability metaphors, must be informed by the lived experiences of disabled people.

A feminist philosophy of language, then, rejects figurative language about disability just as feminist theorists have rejected figurative and universal notions of woman.


The last article I read (more truthfully, revisited) was “Designing Collective Access: A Feminist Disability Theory of Universal Design.” In this article, Hamraie addresses the ways in which UD gets positioned as the most inclusive form of disability access but is often co-opted as a marketing strategy. Her goal is to articulate a theory of accessible design that takes a social justice activism approach rather than consumer-oriented approach to accessibility.

To do so, she identifies three core ideas that undergird UD: accessibility by design (“design that prioritizes accessibility”), broad accessibility (“accessibility for the greatest number of people possible”), and added value (“design that benefits disabled people also has benefits for nondisabled people).

So, there are a few terms that emerge from these core ideas that are important to define. First is the claim that built environments are material-discursive:

Barad uses the term material-discursive to refer to practices that both produce physical phenomena (such as buildings) and communicate meaning about what kinds of material and social relations should be possible (148).

This is similar to Henri Lefebvre’s claim that the physical spaces we inhabit affect our actions within those spaces (and, in turn, our actions and social practices impact those spaces). Built environments impact who is included or excluded from the space, control what kind of actions the space affords or prevents, etc.

The other concept, parti, comes from architecture:

Parti is the “grammar” of architecture, or the material-discursive expression of layout, style, and theme as evident in the design of a building.

Parti refers to how buildings make and convey meaning. Taken together, the two terms illustrate how “buildings actually produce lived and embodied experiences for spatial inhabitants and, at times, for physical boundaries that produce and reinforce structural inequalities.”

Then there’s value-explicit design:

Value-explicit design theories render overt and apparent the values, ideologies, and partis of physical structures, assuming that design is never ideologically neutral. Whether explicitly or implicitly, built environments always reference and imagine bodies and spatial inhabitants.

Okay, so UD is a value-explicit design theory that “critiques the false value-neutrality of inaccessible environments.” Design is never value-neutral, although some design is value-implicit (in that folks don’t purposely create inaccessible buildings, but it still happens, and this communicates particular messages about disability as not valued). For example, what does a sign that reads, “Accessible entrance in back” communicate about how disability is de/valued?

Hamraie argues, then, “The task of a feminist disability theory of UD is to make parti explicit, hold designers accountable for what appears to be disability-neutral design, and show how this neutrality is a constructed form of ignorance.”

In its current articulations, UD tends to get critiqued for ignoring the differences between individuals and instead relying on “universal” needs that tend to get articulated either as broad accessibility or as added value.

Broad accessibility acknowledges that every person who inhabits an accessible built space has a stake in that space. This is the argument of curb cuts, which were created for folks who use wheelchairs but that are also accessible to strollers, rolling suitcases, bicycles, etc. The problem with broad accessibility, as Hamraie notes, is that its vagueness move away from disability accessibility: “Because design is a value-based activity, however, not all human variations straightforwardly count as part of the universal. When the content of the universal is unspecified, UD can slip into vague notions of ‘all’ or ‘everyone’ that assume normate users and de-center disability.”

Added value is similar to broad accessibility in that it also makes the argument that accessible spaces are also of benefit to nondisabled users. Hamraie notes an important distinction between them, though:

What distinguishes broad accessibility from added value is that although the former (broad accessibility) focuses on the social justice implications of segregation and exclusion from the built environment, the latter (added value) emphasizes (often to nondisabled consumers) the market value of accessible designs.

So to move away from consumer-oriented approaches to accessibility that focus on neoliberal notions of flexibility and the marketability of universal yet individualized design, Hamraie advocates for thinking about (and enacting) interdependence and collective access: “UD practitioners and theorists, building upon the theory outlined here, could continue to develop strategies for participatory design, shifting from value-explicit design for disability to design with and by misfitting bodies more generally.”


Although these articles are all very different in focus, I love the threads woven between them: the critical attention to language and the material (and bodily) consequences of abstract theories and words, the critique of “universal” design and embodied experiences, the importance of being accountable to difference and disability and including disabled voices in our theories, research, metaphors, and design processes.


Improving Feminist Philosophy and Theory By Taking Account of Disability. Spec. issue of Disability Studies Quarterly. 33.4 (2013). Web.


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