Assistant professor of philosophy featured in documentary that builds a case for “disability pride”

Stramondo hopes it opens the viewer’s imagination regarding what counts as a good life by showing how disability is not a life sentence of doom and gloom.

By Leslie L.J. Reilly

Joseph StramondoAssistant professor of philosophy Joe Stramondo joined the San Diego State University faculty three years ago. Anyone who knows him, knows the sound of his infectious laugh. They also know his cheerful personality. Professor Stramondo currently teaches two general education courses: Introduction to Ethics and Biomedical Ethics, as well as a new course he developed in Neuroethics. He also developed and taught a graduate seminar in Philosophy of Disability.

Stramondo and his wife, Leah Smith, were featured in the 2018 documentary “Far from the Tree,” directed by Rachel Dretzen and based on a book by Andrew Solomon about relationships between parents and children who are different from themselves.

One segment of the documentary chronicles some of the journey Stramondo and his wife took to becoming parents — focusing on their identity as Little People born into average-size families. “I’m very interested in philosophical issues around social, narrative disability identity and so participating as a subject of the film gave me a chance to discuss some of my views in very concrete terms,” he said.

After returning from a philosophy conference at Michigan State University, where he received his doctorate in 2015, Stramondo answered a few questions about himself.

What brought you to San Diego from Michigan?

My path to San Diego was actually pretty meandering. I was in a long- distance relationship during grad school with Leah. After I became a doctoral candidate and passed my comprehensive exams, I was able to move to Lubbock, Texas, where I lived for two years while Leah finished her grad work at Texas Tech and I wrote my dissertation. Then, we moved to Philadelphia, where most of “Far From the Tree” was filmed, so I could take my first full-time appointment as a teaching professor at Drexel University.

After two years in Philly, I had the opportunity to come to SDSU for a tenure track appointment and jumped on it. In philosophy, such opportunities are excruciatingly rare.

When you were approached to do the "Far from the Tree" documentary, how did you feel?

Both my spouse and I were very hesitant at first. There is a very long history of disabled people being put on public display for the entertainment of others. In particular, people with dwarfism like us have been exploited in freak shows and circuses for a very long time.

We didn't want to have any part in a project that would regard people with dwarfism as objects of public spectacle. It took many, many conversations with the director and producer over many months to build the level of trust that was required to let them into our life. Now, they are almost like family. We still keep in touch with them regularly.

How did the filming process go?

Filming was a very long haul. We worked with the crew for nearly two years and I can't even say how many times we got in front of the camera. The film crew traveled with us to the LPA conference in St. Louis, to my parents’ house in Connecticut, and to our doctor appointments and subsequent birth of our daughter in Baltimore, as you will see in the film. Most of the filming happened in Philly, where we were living at the time, but they were quite willing to follow us on several multi-state adventures when we traveled for various reasons.

What do you hope people will come away with after watching the documentary?

I hope the biggest take away is there is something positive to be said for the experiences of disability.  It's not at all a life sentence of doom and gloom, but a complex way of being that has some good features and some difficult ones, just like any other minority status. At least sometimes and for some people, disability can even be something worth celebrating.

What was the subject of your presentation at the recent Public Philosophy Network Conference: “From All Walks of Life” at MSU?

I organized a panel called "Philosophy and/or/as Disability Rights Activism" that explored the relationship between the values, methodologies, and practices of academic philosophy and those of the disability rights movement, asking the question of: can one be a philosopher pursuing knowledge at the same time as they are an activist fighting for social change? My own contribution argued that disability rights activists shift the cultural milieu in a way that gets more uptake for the arguments generated by philosophers of disability doing bioethics, even when these activists are using methods that are farthest from those of academic philosophy — like civil disobedience.

What do you think the audience gleaned from your presentation? 

I hope the audience members came away thinking about the ways in which philosophy is not done in a political vacuum, so the work of scholars and activists are inextricably bound together. Rather than ignore or deny or obscure this relationship, it is better to explore it and think about the ways in which we can advance each other's projects.