Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Alexander Levine, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Joanne Waugh, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Lee Braver, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr., Ph.D.

Committee Member

Diane Price-Herndl, Ph.D.


Embodiment, Epistemology of Ignorance, Experience, Feminist Epistemology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Quality of Life


This dissertation contributes to the development of philosophy of disability by drawing on disability studies, feminist philosophy, phenomenology, and philosophy of biology in order to contest epistemic and ontological assumptions about disability within biomedical ethics as well as within philosophical work on the body, demonstrating how philosophical inquiry is radically transformed when experiences of disability are taken seriously.

In the first two chapters, I focus on epistemological and ontological concerns surrounding disability within biomedical ethics. Although disabled people and their advocates have been quite vocal regarding their views on disability and in critiquing bioethicists’ approaches to issues that affect them, the interests, knowledge, and experiences of disabled people have had minimal impact on discussions within biomedical ethics textbooks. The risks of making problematic assumptions about disability are high within this subfield insofar as bioethicists impact practices within medical facilities, public policy, and, through student engagement with their texts in biomedical ethics courses, the views of potential health care professionals. All of these, in turn, affect the care provided to disabled people and potential/actual parents of disabled children.

Chapter three raises ontological issues related to disability theory, examining the role of the impairment/disability distinction in framing discussions of the body as well as the status of experience. I discuss two approaches to incorporating subjective experiences of the body in disability, arguing that neither is sufficient. I examine debates within feminist theory on questions related to experience. I argue that a feminist phenomenological approach that builds on Merleau-Ponty’s work offers the best way to address bodily experiences in disability theory. The assumptions that disability theorists and Merleau-Ponty make about disability are often at odds. Chapter four points out the ableism in Merleau-Ponty’s use of a case study and considers some of the oversights within Phenomenology of Perception. In spite of my critique, I argue that his approach to phenomenology—with appropriate modifications—is useful not only for theorizing the experiences of disabled people but also for addressing other types of marginalized embodiment. Chapter five applies this method to body integrity identity disorder (BIID), arguing that combining Merleau-Ponty’s insights with those of disability theory allows us to address lived experiences of BIID and to identify assumptions about disability within research on this condition.

Included in

Philosophy Commons