Applying Merleau-Ponty's Account of Perceptual Practices to Teaching on Disability

Florida Philosophical Review 13 (1):14-28 (2013)
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This paper provides suggestions for educators who have a desire to learn about, or are already committed to, challenging ableism and disablism. As philosophy teachers, we have the opportunity to facilitate student reflection regarding disability, which puts students in a position to make decisions about whether to retain their habitual ways of comporting themselves toward disabled people or to begin the process of forming new perceptual practices. I contend that existential phenomenology, as formulated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Linda Martín Alcoff, provides insights regarding the habitual formation of perceptual practices that are useful for thinking about ways that perception may be informed by ableism and disablism. Jessica Cadwallader demonstrates how their insights can be usefully applied to thinking about perceptions of disability. Through analysis of past encounters with people with disabilities, Cadwallader suggests that students change their habitual ways of responding to people with disabilities. While such reflections may be valuable for making habitual perceptual practices explicit, I would suggest that this is only a condition for the possibility of changing ablist perceptual practices rather than the change itself. Students are likely to enter the classroom lacking the insight that they are even engaging in perceptual practices informed by cultural narratives rather than simply perceiving people with impairments as they are. I argue that an approach to teaching on disability that thematizes perceptual practices regarding disability, and takes experiences of disabled people into account, would be more effective than the one Cadwallader describes. Understanding the ways that people with disabilities experience being constructed as a problem through ableist perceptual practices could help students recognize their own potential to impact others in positive and negative ways.

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Christine Wieseler
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona


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