Male-dominated conferences in neuroscience

The NY Times reports on a data-based analogue of the Gendered Conference Campaign in neuroscience:

[The organizers] started a website called BiasWatchNeuro, with an inaugural post on the conference. Since then, they have posted gender ratios among speakers at more than 60 conferences in various areas of neuroscience, and compared them with the base rates — the proportion of female scientists in that particular field. The base rates are estimated from the number of women in grants databases. If anything, Dr. Niv said, the site errs on the side of underestimating the base rates.

At about half of the conferences listed on the site so far, the number of female speakers matches or surpasses the base rate in that field in general. But what fuels the project, Dr. Niv said, is how many conferences continue to fall not just a little, but far short, of the proportion of women in that field.

The discussion in the article, including potential explanations for the findings and varied reactions from people within the field, is interesting, and has a lot of parallels to the case of philosophy.

Ryan Lochte, false reports, and believing the women

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted on social media that they had been robbed. Immediately, messages of concern and support started to pour in. Oh my God, I’m so sorry. Are you okay? Are you hurt? Is there anything I can do? Etc, etc.

A similar thing happened on a much larger scale when US Olympian Ryan Lochte claimed he had been mugged in Rio. But leaving aside the legal fine points of whether what happened to Lochte should technically count as robbery, it’s become clear since his initial report that Lochte lied about the incident and painted himself as a victim when he wasn’t one.

‘Believe victims’ is a common refrain among feminist and anti-rape activists. And it’s one that’s commonly misinterpreted, mostly by critics but occasionally by well-meaning allies as well. When anti-rape activists say that we should believe victims, they’re effectively saying that our attitude toward reports of rape shouldn’t be different than our attitude to self-reports of other crimes: the default should be belief, rather than skepticism.

When my friend said they were robbed, they were met with messages of support and condolence and offers of assistance. So was Lochte. Women who say they were raped are often met with questions about whether they are sure it wasn’t consensual, whether they’re remembering things correctly, whether they might’ve been sending mixed messages. The default is very often suspicion.

When anti-rape activists say that our default should be belief, it doesn’t mean that they think we should continue to believe any and all accusations of rape, come what may. The default was to believe Ryan Locthe, but when evidence emerged that he was lying, people revised that belief. ‘Believe victims’ isn’t asking us to confer special epistemic status on people who say they were raped – to treat that testimony as completely unquestionable or inviolable. It’s instead asking us precisely not to confer special epistemic status. Don’t treat an accusation of rape differently than most any other self-report of a crime.* Give the alleged victim the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re telling the truth.

We have good reason to suppose that false accusations of rape are rare. We also have very good reason to think that there’s massive disincentive against making a false accusation. But we also know that false accusations do happen, and that sometimes people act irrationally. Ryan Locthe had a lot of reasons not to make up an action movie story about getting robbed in Rio, but it still happened. ‘Believe victims’ doesn’t mandate that we ignore the possibility of false accusations; it just treats false accusations as the outlying exception rather than the rule, just as false accusations of robbery are the exception rather than the rule.

But the difference in the cases, of course, is that people will take this one very high profile instance of a false accusation of robbery and remember it as ‘Ryan Lochte lied about robbery’. That Ryan Lochte lied about being mugged in Rio won’t make me any less likely to believe a friend the next time they post about being robbed on social media. We won’t suddenly become suspicious of swimmers generally, or of white men with badly died hair. Ryan Lochte isn’t seen as a representative of anything systematic – he’s just Ryan Lochte. In contrast, we remember high profile instances of false accusations of rape, not as ‘Jane lied about rape’ or ‘Anna lied about rape’ but as ‘women lie about rape’.

*Caveat: we might have good reasons to approach the testimony of rape victims differently, even if we don’t – in epistemic terms – treat their testimony differently. Asking a victim of rape to recount their story over and over and probing that story for details can be extremely traumatizing for a rape victim in a way that it might not be for a robbery victim.

UPDATE: A friend send me a link to this editorial from Anna Rhodes making basically the same point.

Neurodiversity and social norms

The wonderful Audrey Yap said recently, in her interview with Dialogues on Disability, that  she hopes we can work toward the ‘normalization’ of things we typically classify as mental illnesses – including, in her specific case, depression. She explains:

For me, normalization would mean getting to a place where depression wouldn’t be something that one would have to admit, “disclose,” or “come out” about. Instead, it would be treated as a relatively common phenomenon that many people experience and certainly not something about which one should be ashamed. . . .What I would like, I suppose, is a culture in which we did not disproportionately reward those who are neuro-typical. I just don’t know exactly how we would get there.

I’m very sympathetic to Audrey’s point here. But it’s made me wonder how this idea of normalization fits in with another thing that I’m also sympathetic to – efforts to make professional interaction in philosophy more civil, kind, and respectful. Just so I’m 100% clear: I’m not for one second saying that people who deal with psychological or cognitive disability are somehow less civil, kind, or respectful. Rather, what I’m saying is this: how we go about trying to make a professional environmental more civil, kind, and respectful involves the cultivation of social norms, and this might have a disproportionate impact on people with certain types of disabilities. Some types of neuro-atypicality can affect how people interact socially. They can make it harder to perceive what the social norms are, or they can make it harder to behave according to those norms.

So here’s what often seems to happen. You’re at a conference where everyone is trying to be generally nice and supportive. Then Prof. X asks a question in a way that seems rude or aggressive. After the talk, people of genuine goodwill – wanting to explain why they think X wasn’t really being a jerk or didn’t do something blameworthy – start to whisper ‘Oh, I’m pretty sure X is [insert psychological diagnosis]’. What people are trying to do is explain why Prof. X didn’t intend to be rude, or why – even if maybe she did intend to be rude in that particular instance – she shouldn’t be blamed. But in doing this, they’re of course doing exactly what Audrey hopes we can avoid. They’re disclosing a diagnosis, often without X’s permission and maybe even without any confirmation from X that this diagnosis is accurate.

I think social norms that encourage respectful, collegial professional interaction are important for making our profession more welcoming. But I think they might also, in some cases, be the kind of things that either force the disclosing of a disability or, as Audrey put it, ‘disproportionality reward those who are neurotypical’. And the reason I’m writing this post is that I genuinely don’t know what to think about this.

Maybe this is one of those cases where there’s just a deep-set tension – like when some people have service dogs and other people have severe allergies – and the only thing we can do is muddle through the best we can, with sensitivity and goodwill. Or maybe I’m wrong that there’s a genuine tension here. Or maybe in some circumstances one of these values ought to be sacrificed for the sake of the other. Like I said, I really don’t know. I’m hoping you lovely readers will have smart ideas in the comments.

Women-only spaces and the ‘wrong kind’ of woman

As we’ve discussed before, feminist and women-only spaces are often less inclusive than we’d hope, especially to women of color. And this is of course an ongoing issue that intersectional feminism seeks to wrestle with and improve on.

But there’s an interesting question that’s specific to feminist and women-only spaces in philosophy – are they inadvertently unwelcoming to women who do certain kinds of philosophy, especially the kinds we typically code as ‘male’ (logic, formal epistemology, metaphysics, etc)? It’s this topic that Sara Uckelman – a logician – explores in her blog post about her recent experiences at women-only and women-focused philosophy events.

If my experiences talking with women grad students and early career philosophers working in technical subfields is at all representative, I think that at least some of the frustrations that Uckelman expresses in her post are not uncommon. There’s sometimes a delicate interplay between philosophers who are feminists (that is, philosophers committed to feminism) and feminist philosophers (that is, philosophers whose research interests include feminist philosophy). And I think it’s easy for women who work in technical or esoteric parts of metaphysics, logic, and epistemology to be made to feel – often implicitly, but sometimes explicitly – that they are somehow less feminist in virtue of their research areas. And this can easily make them feel as though, somehow, they are the ‘wrong kind’ of women for women-in-philosophy spaces.

It’s a two-way street, of course. Feminist and social philosophers are often told that they are less rigorous, less smart, etc than those doing technical work, or that their work isn’t ‘real philosophy’. And unhelpful generalizations can hinder communication both ways. (An odd part of Uckelman’s post was the discussion about feminist philosophers and beer – plenty of the feminist philosophers I know like beer a lot.) But I do think it’s important that feelings and experiences like Uckelman’s are talked about and recognized as part of making women-in-philosophy efforts more inclusive.

There’s no one way to be a woman in philosophy, and no right or better thing to work on if you’re a woman in philosophy. Valuing traditionally marginalized areas of philosophy – including feminist philosophy – shouldn’t come at the expense of saying that other areas are somehow less good or less worthy. And of course one’s research area can never be treated as a proxy for one’s moral character or engagement with social causes. (*Cough* Thomas Pogge *Cough*). There are a lot of ways to be a woman in philosophy, and hopefully we can make philosophy better for all of them.

Grad student attrition

The Atlantic has a new story about attrition in PhD programs. In our discussions here, we focus a lot on how specific issues in philosophy – sexual harassment, gender and racial bias, lack of accessibility, etc – can be particularly hard for particular types of students. But, the importance of those issues notwithstanding, grad school can be hard for anyone and everyone. And there’s an increasing amount of evidence that grad students are especially vulnerable to mental health problemsThe Atlantic article focuses on some potential explanations for general grad student unhappiness and attrition, especially the high levels of uncertainty about the future, lack of mentoring, and relentless criticism that grad students often encounter.

This conversation is a complicated one to have, especially in fields like philosophy. The Atlantic article seems to start from the premise that attrition is, in general, a bad thing – if students have the ability to finish a PhD but aren’t, then their universities are failing them. But I doubt it’s that simple. Grad school isn’t for everyone, and it’s probably a good thing that some people get into grad programs, realize the work isn’t making them happy, and leave (even if they have the academic ability to finish). It’s hard to predict what grad school will be like from the outside, and there’s nothing in principle wrong with giving it a try and realizing it’s not your thing. I worry we sometimes pathologize leaving as failure – as though there’s something intrinsically better about finishing a PhD if you can, even if you don’t want to – and that in doing so we make it harder for students who simply aren’t enjoying their work to move on to something else. That being said, I don’t doubt that we’re definitely failing our grad students along multiple dimensions – including those discussed in The Atlantic – and that as a result many who could be very happy and successful in our PhD programs aren’t.

Social categories and sports: negotiating a minefield

The Olympics and Paralympics are happening this summer – hopefully to be filled with lots of great sports action and relatively little sewage-borne disease. But in addition to being fun to watch, this summer’s Olympics will be at the epicenter of some incredibly complicated debates about classification and social categories.

Sports are often organized by classificatory categories. Sometimes, doing this is pretty straight forward – e.g., you have weight classes for boxers, and to determine what weight class a boxer should compete in you just weigh them. But others are more difficult. And the most difficult – but also the most significant and wide-ranging – are those classifications that are correlated to social categories: whether someone is a man or a woman, and whether (and how) someone is disabled.

The issue of sex and gender categories – and sex and gender policing – in sports has become familiar in recent years, in large part because of the controversy over South African runner Caster Semenya. Semenya was subjected to horribly invasive ‘gender verification’ tests which ultimately led to the implementation of rules regulating testosterone levels in female athletes. Semenya was allowed to compete in women’s events, but only by suppressing her natural testosterone levels. Her performance suffered. But those rules have recently been overturned, and Semenya is now the heavy favorite to win the women’s 800m in Rio.

A big part of the problem is that sport classification is binary – you either compete as a male or as a female. But biology isn’t that simple. Most people are easily classifiable as male or female, but not all – there is a spectrum of sex variation between the clearly male and the clearly female. And perhaps unsurprisingly, various intersex conditions seem to be over-represented among elite female athletes.

Classifying athletes as either and only male or female requires us draw a sharp division where there sometimes isn’t one. That by itself isn’t a big deal – in fact, it’s something we do all the time in organizing society. Everyone accepts that 10-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to drive but 20-year-olds should. The legal age limit for driving will obviously be an arbitrary cut-off somewhere in the middle. There’s nothing intrinsically special about the age of 16 in the US, or 17 in the UK; it’s just the place where where an arbitrary-but-needed boundary is drawn. But sex and gender in sport is much more politically and socially significant – especially when you consider that the people most vulnerable in the debate (intersex and trans people) are also among the most vulnerable people in our society more generally.

Things get even more complicated when we consider that classification for sport competition is a strange mixture of sex and gender. It clearly isn’t just a matter of gender. A genderqueer person who has female-associated sex characteristics and has never undergone any hormone therapy should clearly be allowed to compete as a woman, regardless of whether they identify as a woman. A trans man who hasn’t undergone any sort of medical transition process should arguably be allowed to continue to compete as a woman if they have done so previously (that is, a change in publicly-stated gender identification doesn’t obviously force a change in sport classification, if that change isn’t accompanied by any sort of medical transition procedure). But it also isn’t just a matter of sex. A trans woman who has undergone years of hormone therapy should arguably be allowed to compete as a woman, regardless of whether she would fit other typical definitions of ‘female’.

In all these cases, what seems to be relevant to sport classification are the sex-related physiological factors which affect sport performance. Separate classifications exist because sex-related physiological differences create differences in athletic ability. Sex classification is often pitched as necessary simply because it allows women to be competitive at elite levels. And it’s certainly true that for sports requiring explosive power, speed, etc males tend to have athletic advantage. But it’s also worth remembering that female bodies have advantages over male bodies in areas such as balance and flexibility, though typically this leads to events where men just don’t compete (e.g., the balance beam) or activities requiring extreme amounts of athleticism being construed as arts rather than sports (e.g., ballet). That being said, it’s clearly the case that sex factors affect sports performance, and some sort of sex/gender classification in sports is important.

Trans athletes have made a compelling case that, regardless of how their sex might or might not be classified, it’s their hormone levels that should determine their gender classification in sports. A trans woman who has been on HRT for years has much more in common – when it comes to the physiological factors that affect sport performance – with cis women than she does with cis men. But allowing trans women to compete on the basis of their hormone levels deepens the complexity of the controversy surrounding hyper-androgenous athletes like Semenya. Sex classification in sports can’t merely be a matter of self-identification (the way that gender classification arguably can be). But is it fair to subject trans athletes – and only trans athletes – to testosterone limits?

Some have argued that hyper-androgenous athletes shouldn’t have their hormones regulated because whatever advantage they incur is natural. If their bodies naturally produce lots of testosterone and that gives them an advantage, so be it. Elite athletes often have unusual physical characteristics that give them an advantage, and we don’t force them to curtail those advantages in order to make sports ‘fair’. But it isn’t quite that simple. The issue with hyper-androgenism – and intersex conditions more generally – is that they create advantage that’s directly related to the male/female classification structure we have in place precisely because some sex-related characteristics (including testosterone levels) give male bodies advantages over female bodies.

Views on this issue run the gamut. A New York Times report persuasively argues that testosterone limits on female athletes create more problems than they solve. But others, including sports scientist Joanna Harper (who is herself trans), maintain that they are the only solution to an otherwise intractable problem. Whatever your view on the matter, this could be an issue where there are simply no good answers. Creating a space for women to compete at the Olympic level against other women is important. But creating a classification that tells us who gets to count as women for sports purposes inevitably shows us how inadequate any sort of binaristic division is, and people get hurt in the process.

Currently, a trans woman who uses HRT to suppress testosterone can compete as a woman, but a genderqueer person with female sex characteristics who takes a small amount of testosterone for a mild androgenizing effect cannot, even if their testosterone levels are the same, and even if the genderqueer person’s testosterone levels are far below Semenya’s. The reasons for this are understandable – testosterone supplementation is a form of doping (indeed it’s one of the most common forms of doping in female athletes). The point is simply that any classification requires drawing a line, and a drawing of a sharp line for sex and gender is going to leave someone out in the cold.

We’re seeing a different, but no less fraught, classification issue emerge in the Paralympics. Again, the controversy arises because distinctions need to be made in order for the sport to function well, but these distinctions require drawing sharp lines across vague boundaries. In doing so, we artificially regiment the borders of politically significant categories in a way that directly impacts vulnerable people.

In the case of the Paralympics, we clearly need to be able to classify whether an athlete is disabled. And we also need to be able to classify – somewhat more baroquely – in what way they are disabled. The need for this is simple. Different disabilities affect sport performance differently, and we want athletes to be able to compete against others with relevantly similar impairments – someone with MS should be able to compete in the paralympics, but not necessarily compete directly against someone with no legs.

But increasing controversy in Paralympic competition surrounds the issue of ‘intentional misrepresentation’ – athletes who purposefully exaggerate some aspects of their disability in order to affect their classification, or (in the most extreme cases) non-disabled athletes who intentionally pass themselves off as disabled. It’s perhaps not surprising, as the Paralympics continues to gain popularity and press coverage, that this type of cheating would be on the rise. But the problem is that attempting to police intentional misrepresentation is both a logistical and political nightmare.

Paralympic classification typically runs on the simplistic assumption that we can measure and quantify ‘how disabled’ an athlete is for her sport. But this is at best a useful fiction. A runner with MS, for example, might have very different physical manifestations of her condition from day to day, some of which could be affected by the environment – especially heat – in which she’s performing. A swimmer with degenerative joint disease will likely have more problems with the strokes notoriously hard on the joints (butterfly and breast stroke) than she will with the less joint-demanding strokes (freestyle and backstroke). And so on.

In response to the problem of intentional misrepresentation, there have been calls for the stricter policing of whether and how athletes are disabled. But the measuring and classifying of disability is incredibly politically loaded, not the least because of how closely tied it is to public misconception surrounding things like benefit fraud. Because we tend to think that disability is relatively stable and easily quantifiable, we assume that, e.g., if someone is seen today not using a wheelchair then she was faking when she was using a wheelchair yesterday, or that if someone can lift their arms over their head today they’ll be able to do the same thing when it really matters tomorrow. In reality, the day to day experience of disability is – at least for many disabled people – much more complicated than that.

The Paralympic disability classifications try to create and subsequently police – again, for understandable reasons – neat disability categories where none exist. The motivation is good: we want a wide range of bodies to be able to compete in disability sport. But the risk is substantial: in trying to create discrete disability categories in such a popular and widely-televised event, there are increasing calls to subject athletes to invasive and insulting testing and increasing worries that we’re inadvertently reinforcing myths about what people who are ‘really disabled’ look and act like.

Both women’s sports and Paralympic sports are important social achievements. In each case, a marginalized group fought hard to have the right to compete in elite sports on their own terms. But figuring out what, exactly, those terms are going to be turns out to be an ethical and political minefield.

Jenny Saul on Brexit

Jenny Saul has written a fantastic piece over at Huffington Post about the complexities of Brexit. Racism and xenophobia are, she agrees, a part of the explanation for the success of the Leave campaign, and was doubtless a major motivator for some (though not all) Leave voters. But, she argues, it would be far too simplistic to explain Brexit as simply a matter of racism. There are other, complicated factors involved, including especially public (mis)perception of the economic implications of a Leave vote:

Many of the people voting to leave the EU genuinely blamed immigration for the starving of social services, which was in fact caused by Cameron’s austerity policies. Many of the people leaving the EU genuinely believed that the UK economy would be thriving and we’d be on top of the world if not for the EU’s fetters. Many people were excited by the thought of saving £350 million per week, and putting this money into the NHS (the most widely reported promise of the Leave camp, a promise already renounced). These beliefs were manifestly false, and regularly debunked.

But this, Saul argues, is where things get really tricky – and where the issues become ones that need to be thought through carefully, rather than dismissed simply as ‘Leave voters are xenophobic/racist’:

But either [Leave voters] never came across these debunkings or they didn’t believe them when they did. This fact-insensitivity is something that we must urgently pay attention to. And a key cause of it is something also urgently in need of attention: poor and working-class people have been told for decades that the experts in charge will look out for them. They have been made promise after promise about how free trade will actually help them, and about how lowering taxes on the rich will improve life for everyone. These promises have been revealed as patently false and cynically manipulative. Given this, it is completely rational for them to distrust the elites, including the politicians, bankers, and economists who have been forecasting economic doom from Brexit. . .But total distrust of experts means a lack of access to one of the most important sources of facts that there could be. And democracy only makes any sense at all when the populace is able to base its decisions on facts. We are at a crisis point here: Lies are being told, immigrants are being scapegoated, and there is widespread distrust of those trying to get the truth out. Somehow, we need to find a way out of this.

An assault survivor speaks out

The woman known as ‘Emily Doe’ – the victim at the center of the trial of Brock Allen Turner – addressed her assailant directly in court at the conclusion of his trial. You can read her entire statement in this article. Here is an excerpt:

[Y]ou said, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life.

Ruin a life, one life, yours, you forgot about mine. Let me rephrase for you, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect. You have dragged me through this hell with you, dipped me back into that night again and again. You knocked down both our towers, I collapsed at the same time you did. Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.

See one thing we have in common is that we were both unable to get up in the morning. I am no stranger to suffering. You made me a victim. In newspapers my name was “unconscious intoxicated woman”, ten syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am. That I am not just a drunk victim at a frat party found behind a dumpster, while you are the All-American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake. I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt, who waited a year to figure out if I was worth something.

Conference accessibility: avoiding some common pitfalls

[Thanks to Teresa Blankmeyer Burke for help and discussion on this post.]

Summer conference season is upon us! In a perfect world, all our conferences are perfectly accessible. But it’s an imperfect world – our conferences are run on limited budgets, our university accessibility teams are often less than ideally helpful, and many of us who are organizing events are scrambling to keep our heads above water as we juggle a sea of logistical details with little help and even less time. Managing accessibility in imperfect circumstances like these can be hard. It’s especially hard for disabled people, in ways a lot of non-disabled people don’t realize – Teresa Blankmeyer Burke has written beautifully about the hidden labor of disability, including all the time and energy spent arranging accommodation. But it’s also just generally complicated and complex. This post offers a few troubleshooting guidelines for how to approach conference accessibility. Hopefully readers can add more in the comments. (And there are some starting points for particular things to think about regarding conference accessibility here and here – lists like these are invariably controversial and imperfect, so if anyone has alternative suggestions please feel free to raise those in the comments as well.)

  • Ask. – This is maybe the most important thing. Ask about accommodation requirements. And don’t just ask the people you know to be disabled – lots of people might have accommodation needs you don’t expect or know about (and they might be uncomfortable bringing them up if you don’t ask). Ask as a matter of course.
  • When people answer, listen. – This may seem obvious, but it’s really important not to second-guess what someone tells you about accessibility on the grounds that it will ‘probably be fine’. So, e.g., someone tells you they need an accessible hotel room. You can’t get one in the hotel you’re planning on using for the conference. But you can get a hotel on the ground floor, so you figure this will probably be fine. The person isn’t in a wheelchair, so they don’t need all the bells and whistles of an accessible room, right? Turns out, though, that many disabled people need the accommodations of accessible rooms – especially the bathroom set up – for reasons far beyond extra space for wheelchairs. Lots of disabled people do lots of complicated things in bathrooms. None of them want to explain it in detail to the person organizing a conference they’re attending. If someone asks for an accessible room, don’t reinterpret that request on the assumption that something else is ‘probably fine’. Similarly, don’t rely on your own judgement about which accessibility requirements are necessary. If someone has asked speakers to use a mic, and a mic has been provided in the room, don’t allow speakers to ignore the mic and say ‘It’s fine, I’m sure everyone can hear me.’ If someone has asked speakers to use a mic, it’s probably because they really do need speakers to use the mic.
  • If in doubt, ask for clarification. – So suppose you’re in a bind. Your conference is over budget, the hotel you’re getting a group rate for doesn’t have any available accessible rooms, and you think maybe the person attending your conference just needs to avoid a specific thing (stairs, narrow halls, etc.) Don’t just assume this is fine, but also don’t approach this issue by saying ‘So I’m planning to book you this basic ground floor room – is that okay?’ If it’s not okay, the person in question will have to respond with many a disabled person’s least favorite phrase: ‘I can’t. . .’. Disabled people, especially successful ones, are socially conditioned to hate this phrase. There’s so much pressure on disabled people to say that everything is fine, to never admit that they can’t do something, to internalize accommodation requirements as their own weakness. They will often go to great lengths just to avoid saying they can’t do something. Don’t put them in that situation. Instead, you can ask something like this: ‘Just to clarify so I get this right: do you need a fully accessible room, or will a room without [this particular thing] work?’
  • Don’t ask for justification. – For the love of God, please don’t make a disabled person explain why they need a particular accommodation. Maybe one day we will live in a world where none of the realities of disability are stigmatized or verboten. But we are not there yet. See above re bathrooms. We also, unfortunately, live in a world where non-disabled people often assume they understand disabled people’s experiences and/or their real (rather than their stated) accommodation requirements. When a disabled person has asked that speakers use a mic, and a speaker assures them ‘Don’t worry, I talk loud, you’ll be able to hear me!’ it’s then up to the disabled person to justify and explain why that’s not true and why they really do, honest to goodness, need that mic. That’s a crappy position to put them in, and it’s requiring them to divulge information they may prefer to keep private.
  • Give details. – Give a conference schedule and give details about that schedule. The last talk ends at 5pm. Dinner is at 7pm. How are people getting to the restaurant? Is it tacitly assumed that everyone will be going for a drink between the talk and dinner? Many disabled people need to plan their schedules with extreme precision. They need to know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen. They also need this information as far in advance as possible. For some disabled people, planning for accommodation needs to happen well in advance of the conference. Details, for many disabled people, are an accessibility issue.
  • Once you’ve given details, stick to those details. – Again, this comes down to the fact that being able to plan reliably is a huge issue for many disabled people. If you’ve given a schedule, stick to the schedule. If you’ve promised breaks, don’t treat them as opportunities for the talks to run longer than scheduled. And if for some reason you’re hosting a conference in an atmosphere where you just know things will be chronically late and not run on schedule, at least flag this in advance so that people can try to plan accordingly.
  • Be transparent. – If you’re having a conversation with a disabled person about accommodation, give them as much information as you can about what you can provide. Be honest about what you can’t provide. Real information – even if the information is about what you can’t do – is so much better and more helpful than ‘We’ll do our best – I’m sure we’ll figure something out!’ If you’re corresponding with university administration about a particular accessibility issue, copy the disabled person into the emails so they know what’s going on.
  • University equality/accommodation services are a good resource to use, but may not be as helpful as you’d like. – These offices are often entirely student-focused, and can easily forget that disabled faculty exist. Asking for help making sure your conference is accessible to your disabled visiting speaker can sometimes be met with a perplexed stare. Often asking about a specific piece of accommodation for a specific venue will get you more traction than asking for general help with making your event accessible. But even then, the helpfulness can vary a lot from place to place.
  • It’s complicated, some things won’t work like you hope, and that’s fine. – Working on accessibility – especially when you have incredibly limited resources and time – is hard. And it’s never perfect. Providing specific accommodation is, in so many cases, a matter of trying to provide individual bandaids for a deeply structural, systematic problem. Sometimes you don’t have the resources to do what you’d like. Sometimes the technology screws up. Sometimes you overlook something. Sometimes different accommodation requests conflict. But just having a conversation about accessibility with openness and goodwill – and being willing to do what you can with what you have – goes a very, very long way.

Janice Dowell speaks out about her experiences as a survivor of harassment and assault

Philosopher Janice Dowell (Syracuse) has spoken out publicly in her ‘What is it like to be a philosopher?’ interview about her experiences of sexual harassment and assault in philosophy:

Although this is very unpleasant, I’d like to say something about my grad school experience, on the hoped-for chance that if folks can put a name to someone who has experienced some of the problems with harassment and sexual assault our profession has just begun discussing, it might dampen some of the truly damaging speculation about the motivations survivors have in coming forward that we see on some professional blogs.

There are too many bad experiences to list them all. I’ll mention two, as well as the effect they had on me. Early in my grad career, I was the object of a surprising amount of disturbing attention. Someone put a plastic erection in my mailbox in the department common room and a male grad student followed me home. He let me know that he had done this when I arrived home, telling me gleefully that he was glad to know where I lived so he could come see me whenever he wanted. As I said—disturbing.

The cumulative effect of this attention was pretty bad: I began to experience intense pain in my arms whenever I went to campus. Not surprisingly, I avoided campus as much as I could; no reading groups, student lounge conversations, no socializing before or after class. Also, not surprisingly, it was very difficult to concentrate on my work, particularly to follow lectures in class, given that they included some of the students I was having trouble with. In retrospect, it’s astonishing to me that I finished any of my classes.

Unfortunately, that was not the worst of it. I was subsequently raped by another philosopher, someone who is still in our profession and whom I occasionally see at APA meetings. I’ve already written about this experience anonymously, here.

You can read the whole interview here.