‘Ableist’ Epistemologies vs. Phenomenology of ‘DIS’

By Ursula Mary Blythe for Disability History Month

(16th November 2022)

This short piece will endeavour to raise awareness of Ableism beyond disability (‘DIS’) and what it means to be human through one’s ‘lived experience’, known as phenomenology in philosophical terms. The concept of Ableism is regarded as a recent phenomenon, yet the Oxford Dictionary traces the word back to 1981, defining it as “discrimination in favour of able-bodied people”. In a sociopolitical context, this can equate to prejudice against people with ‘DIS’ in education, employment, and everyday life.


Similar to phenomenology, existentialism grapples with our being-in-the-world (Heidegger, 1927) and how we cope with circumstances that may be out of our control, such as living with ‘DIS’ in different cultural contexts. Both existentialism and phenomenology developed in response to Hegelian idealism in challenging the philosophical assumptions of the 19th century. Hence, both these concepts were essential to continental philosophy throughout the 20th century.


In scholarly opposition, the philosophy of mind, language, logic, and ‘epistemology’ developed within the Anglo-American analytical tradition. Epistemology concerns itself with how and what constitutes human knowledge. However, analytical philosophy mainly prioritised human intellect over the complexities of the body and intersections of identity or social markers, such as gender and disability. Meanwhile, patriarchal structures, such as the mainstream media, promoted the so-called ‘perfect body’ and Ableism.


An important chronological illustration is how women's ideal body type has changed throughout history. Such examples include the 1920's flapper body; the 1950’s hourglass figure of Marilyn Monroe; the 1990’s thin silhouette of Kate Moss; and the more recent slim-thick-hourglass of Kim Kardashian. These Ableist and capitalist structures prioritise a “mythical ideal body” as being superior to other types of bodies, but this notion is not fixed over time (Dembroff, 2023 publication).


Beyond the classic mind-body distinction, analytical philosophy rarely concerned itself with the ‘lived experience’ of the body, until the rise of feminist philosophy and research on social constructionism. This is often deemed as a form of anti-realism; however, a growing number of contemporary analytical philosophers defend views that are well-defined in terms of patriarchal power, the reality of social hierarchies, and the ethics of phenomenology (see Fricker, 2007; Haslanger, 2012; and Barnes, 2017).


Media sources in the 1950s believed that technology was “a mere extension of bodily skills employed for the satisfaction of bodily appetites” (Polanyi, 1958). This raises philosophical questions about what types of bodies matter, or which are more productive, particularly as the economic landscape continues to be transformed by digital technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI). It has often been asserted that the online world makes life easier for human beings, but at what cost?


One such illustration is the universal shift towards virtual self-management through online shopping, online banking, eConsultations, and numerous other virtual realities which reduce human interaction and a sense of community. These somewhat invasive technologies can be both inclusive and exclusive, but either way, they are changing how we live, work, and communicate with each other. Furthermore, this transformation poses a complex human dilemma, in that these technologies have not done much to reduce inequality.


One could also argue that technology reflects universal principles of standard design and ways of functioning, making the body redundant and removing one’s agency or unique ways of navigating the world. On a more positive note, assistive technology has been extremely positive for many disabled people in plugging into our ‘visual’ reality through assistive devices and specialised software without having to travel to their place of study or work.


Historically, bodies have been accepted, rejected, and reinvented through Ableist social constructions and ‘epistemic injustice’. A succinct way to explain epistemic injustice is “a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower” (Fricker, 2007:1). People with ‘DIS’ are particularly vulnerable to epistemic injustice, as they are often dependent on existing structures of power through circumnavigating the medical model, social infrastructure, and the political domain that resides over public policy, including the Personal Independence Payment (PIP).


Epistemologically speaking, Ableism is a form of ‘DIS’ ignorance, particularly prevalent in higher education. So, perhaps we need to reduce Ableist practices and work towards increased public awareness, accessibility, and empowerment of people with ‘DIS. Collaboration with international partners is key to placing the voices of people with ‘DIS’ at the centre of the debate and decision-making process. Indeed, a paradigm shift is fundamental to achieving disability inclusion in contemporary societies, which enables the equality of human rights, accessible design, and different ways of participating in education and leisure activities.


On reflection, Ableism can take various forms, but in the broadest sense, it can be understood as attitudinal, physical, and structural norms (i.e. psychological or social barriers).  Ableism is re-fuelled by patriarchal mechanisms, productive technology, and social phenomena over time and space, resulting in renewed epistemologies and ways of categorising people. Thus, to reverse the cycle of subordination, I would conclude my argument by emphasising the importance of including people with ‘DIS’ in the decision-making process, particularly when it directly impacts their ‘lived experience’ and being-in-the-world.

Posted by Kim Down on 22nd November 2022 at 12:00am