This page shares work and ideas for creating public philosophy for folks with developmental and cognitive disabilities. By no means are these suggestions meant to be ONLY for people with developmental and/or cognitive disabilities.
I am extremely interested in collaborating and generating resources for this kind of work. It seems like we talk about doing philosophy with all kinds of people but those who might most like a chance to stretch their minds, explore cool new ideas, and talk about what matters are left out because it is assumed they “can’t do it.” This is completely false. We must create and practice public philosophy so that anyone who wants to participate is able to do so.
I am not aware of other efforts to create these sorts of philosophy discussion groups. If this is something you are working on, please let me know!
In the Spring of 2021, I led a philosophy discussion group (“Big Ideas Discussion Group”) for actors at my inclusive community theatre company. You can read a little bit more about the group in the director’s blog here: https://samsdetourblog.wordpress.com/2021/03/25/almost-a-wrap-last-two-intros/
Below is the class plan and some reflections from leading this group.
Class topics (8 week class)
-Reasons: How do we explain what we think?
-Personal identity: Are we who we are because of our memories? Our interests? Our bodies?
-Other minds: Can we mind-read? What kind of thing has a mind/consciousness?
-Dreams: Are dreams real? How do our sleeping dreams relate to the idea of dreams as goals/hopes?
-Ethics: What’s right and what’s wrong? What makes something right or wrong?
-Love and friendship: Who is a “family”? What do family love, friendship, and romantic love have in common?
-Political Philosophy: How do we decide what to do about questions that affect all of us? How would you change the world?
-Imagination & Experience Machine: What makes things meaningful?
Class format (75 min class)
15 minute warm-up activity: Everyone practices some kind of “thinking” and everyone is able to give short responses
- Example: We have two songs we could play later in class but we only have time to do one–how should we decide? (political phil); “Food you love….Animal you love….Person you love….” (love and friendship)
50 minutes: Usually broken up into two sessions, sometimes three
- Example: 20 mins trying to mind-read, 10 mins talking about whether that worked, 20 mins talking about whether a plant or my shoe have feelings/minds (epistemology/metaphysics)
10 minute cool-down activity: a kind of culmination, as positive as possible, incorporates talking to each other as much as possible
- Example: telling a story together where a bad thing happens but then a good thing can fix it (ethics)
I found the Center for Philosophy for Children (at Washington University) to have some useful resources. Specifically, they had warm-up questions I ended up utilizing, for example, questions intended to get people to name things on a right/wrong spectrum or imagination exercises. I was resistant to other Philosophy for Children resources, mainly because they seemed geared for children and my class consisted of adults! I felt like it would be demeaning to discuss themes from a book that was clearly written for children, for example. I also wanted my content to be relevant to adults–one of people’s favorite days was our conversation about love and friendship, where we included romantic relationships.
It was much more successful for me to work on adapting existing intro to philosophy curriculum–for example, the ideas in both the Ring of Gyges story from the Republic and Nozick’s Experience Machine seemed, at bottom, accessible, I just needed to figure out how to communicate these ideas to our participants. I wanted to expose our participants to lots of different parts of philosophy, so we did have sessions on themes in epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, and political philosophy. I did start asking very early what else people wanted to talk about, and our session on friendship and love was inspired by this. If we had more time, I would have also done a session on sports and one on theatre.
Actually doing philosophy
My class contained a day about “reasons” as an introduction to in fact doing philosophy and presenting information. I think this was helpful and also ended up being very fun. I also wanted to give people a little more vocabulary to explain things–we could, for the rest of the class, talk about “reasons” and have an idea of what that meant.
Something I wanted to reiterate was how capable my participants were. Having an academic background allowed me to relate their own ideas to other famous philosophers. People feel much more comfortable when you tell them that they should say what they think when you affirm that well-known people in this field have, in fact, disagreed and thought all kinds of different things.
Many of the participants I was working with had experience with American Sign Language. Incorporating basic signs as movements was helpful for maintaining attention and keeping the conversation focused, especially during our warm-ups. For example, I incorporated the questions from the Teaching Philosophy to Children program at the University of Washington for our session on ethics. In asking the participants to name something “pretty good,” then something “really good,” I situated their responses on a visual scale (as you would do in ASL, but which should be available easily to non-signers: the better something was, the higher up or further to the right it was).
We also worked with our own movements. For example, when we explored mind reading,I found myself pointing to my head with both fingers and scrunching up my face. The class ended up doing this together, during the times when we were each trying to visualize something.
Movement also helped break up the class and keep it fun. For example, in our class on political philosophy, after each person presented their ideas on what they would do if they were “queen for a day,” we all bowed, curtseyed, or waved to them.
Finally, visual voting was a helpful medium. So was giving kudos or appreciation visually (eg, ASL applause).
It doesn’t have to be about disability/It doesn’t have to not be about disability
My course did not explore any directly disability-related topics. I never wanted the participants to feel like they were being studied–I wanted them to join me in studying philosophy.
That being said, I wanted to remain open to the ways in which the participants’ experience was valuable and important. For example, in our week on love and friendship, in discussing what “family” meant and who we considered to be our “family,” when introducing who might be in a family, I discussed parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, partners, but also took care to include guardians (which was the relevant family for one of my participants) and even staff (those who live and/or work at group homes or day programs). In our session on political philosophy, one participant brought up more employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and we discussed that as well. In our session on identity, one participant brought up his distress at the way that others perceive him–because he is a 40-year-old man with apparent cognitive disabilities, others perceive him to be threatening, but he sees himself still as a “young, fun guy.”
I found this to be not so different than a college teaching experience. Because of the Zoom format and because the group was ultimately a discussion group, I took care not to interrupt people. We alternated with people raising hands when they wanted to talk, and ultimately, me soliciting people who hadn’t spoken in a while, saying simply, “X hasn’t said something about this yet. X, do you have anything you want to add?”
I also was extremely careful not to lecture. The more I could break things down step-by-step, and we could discuss each step, the more successful our conversations were.
Staying on topic was a challenge for some participants. It was helpful to make sure these participants were clear on exactly which question or idea they were responding to. I also would repeat what they said (something I tried to do often), emphasizing the parts of what they said that were the most relevant to the conversation.