Interdisciplinary Scholar Joel Michael Reynolds joins Disability Studies Program and Department of Philosophy

Meet Joel Michael Reynolds

Joel Michael Reynolds—a specialist in the philosophy of disability, bioethics, modern European philosophy, and social epistemology—joined Georgetown University as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Disability Studies for Fall 2020. In his words, here is an account of his scholarly background and his pioneering vision on the significance of disability.

Most humanistic fields began taking up disability as a foundational issue during the final decades of the twentieth century. Philosophy, as is often the case, was one of the slower to do so. In the last eight years or so, however, philosophy of disability has taken off (new window). For example, there now exists a journal devoted to the field, The Journal of Philosophy of Disability (new window), which I edit with Teresa Blankmeyer Burke of Gallaudet University, and “philosophy of disability” or “disability studies” increasingly shows up as an area of specialization or competence in job ads.

For those of us committed not just to scholarship concerning disability, but to disability justice (new window), this is good news. Disability is not an issue or experience that concerns some people—it concerns everyone. Disability is fundamental to human life, and it is high time that we use all of the resources of humanistic inquiry to better appreciate the complex meaning of disability.

In my own scholarship, one way I have taken up this challenge is by showing how a disability-centric lens provides new and vital insights to debates, both old and new. Whether the question of how ableism impacts medical error (new window) or the challenge of “non-normate” phenomenology (new window), I find time and time again that beginning with the work and lived experience of disabled people, disabled activists, and disability scholars opens new avenues for thought and praxis. As Talila A. Lewis insightfully argues (new window), ableism is “a system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence, and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism, and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s appearance and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel, and ‘behave.’ You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.” The meaning of disability and of ableism are, to be sure, extremely complex, but they are also already a part of every human life—one just needs to learn how to pay attention to them. As one of the mottos of disability studies goes, “disability is everywhere, once you begin looking for it.”

While the increase in the study of disability is a boon on my fronts, it is still the case that openly disabled academics are grossly underrepresented (new window). This is not just a problem with respect to diversity, demographics, and representation, but also a problem that involves the larger ableist structures that shape much of academia: inaccessible buildings and campuses, lack of job flexibility, unmanageable workloads, and stigma regarding multiple conditions, but especially those concerning mental health, etc. The fact that academic job ads will sometimes still contain the clause (new window) that the applicant must display “manual dexterity, lifting up to 25 pounds, carrying up to 25 pounds” is telling. As someone disabled through psychological-emotional issues, academia presents me with many challenges. But the challenges I face are quite different—and in certain respects more manageable—than other disabled academics. The extent to which people around me, from students to faculty to administrators, are educated about disability and issues of access more generally makes a profound difference. But until that knowledge starts shaping the larger structures of academia, from buildings to labor norms to hiring decisions, disability justice will not be realized. Among the many things that the continued growth of disability studies in the humanities promises, it is an improved chance to make real changes like this.