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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Philosophers, Others to Gather for SOPHIA Symposium Scheduled Feb. 25-26

Diverse participants from coast to coast are coming to the University of Mississippi this month for a philosophy symposium examining disability issues.

Set for Feb. 25-26, “Disability, Civic Responsibility and Community Friendship” is the first of the SOPHIA (which is Greek for “wisdom”) symposia planned for 2011. Discussions will be held in Bryant Hall beginning at 5 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. Saturday. Fifty to 100 persons are anticipated, and the public is invited to attend at no charge.

Upon request, a sign-language interpreter will be available, but requests should be made in advance, as early as possible.

“We are inviting practitioners from outside the university – such as teachers, lawyers, nurses, doctors and social workers – to dialogue with scholars of philosophy, religion and other fields of interest,” said Eric Thomas Weber, UM assistant professor of public policy leadership and program organizer. “The aim of the event will be to apply the lessons of philosophy to the challenging situations that arise in real life and for philosophers to learn from people for whom philosophical challenges regarding disabilities arise in their lives or work.”

Disability experts serving as facilitators for the symposium are Nancy Tuana, director of the Rock Ethics Institute and DuPont/Class of 1949 professor of philosophy at Pennsylvania State University; Robin Wilkerson, professor of nursing and director of the north Mississippi campus sites at the UM Medical Center’s School of Nursing; and Weber. Following a reception and informal opening dialogue, four separate conversation sessions are slated, drawing from brief readings by various authors.

“At SOPHIA events, we seek to foster conversations much in the way that Socrates engaged in conversations in Athens, Greece so long ago,” Weber said. “The readings are offered to help spark conversation. While we encourage participants to read prior to the sessions, most of the readings will be only one or two pages, so latecomers can read the material quickly and engage in conversation.”

A philosophical conversation between philosophers and people who work in a variety of areas concerning disabilities can be beneficial to all, said Stacey Reycraft, director of UM’s Student Disability Services.

“I think any time you can have an open and free discussion on the issue of disability, it is a good thing,” Reycraft said. “Hopefully, bringing these two populations of people together can create a real conversation about the different ‘models’ or belief systems about disability and how really destructive most of those models are.”

As examples, Reycraft described the medical model, which looks at disability as an unhealthy, abnormal state of being that needs to be fixed; the paternalistic model, which sees those with disabilities as children who are incapable of making their own decisions and assumes that those without disabilities know “what’s best”; and the charity model, which views disability as a tragedy and looks at those with disabilities as victims who need to be pitied and cared for.

“Bringing philosophers into the discussion can bring light to the social justice model of disability, where disability is a social construct and is really just another state of being human,” she said. “The social justice model assumes that those living with disabilities deserve the same respect, self-determination and rights as the rest of us.”

The first SOPHIA symposium examined “Ethics at the End of Life” in 2009. Weber selected the subject of disability for this year’s meeting after his daughter suffered a stroke and developed a form of epilepsy.

“As the executive director of SOPHIA, I saw a clear benefit in choosing the subject of disability as the theme for our event, especially since there are some wonderful scholars out there who can come educate my wife and me, fellow scholars on campus, and members of the community about their expertise,” Weber said. “At the same time, SOPHIA is an organization that sees great value in the interaction with members of the community, who can teach scholars a lot about real-life stories and experiences dealing with what we scholars study and write about.”

Weber is seeking to offer continuing education credits for attorneys, physical therapists, physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners and educators.
“Early registration is recommended, which simply consists of contacting me to express an interest in attending,” Weber said.

SOPHIA symposia are supported by grants from the Mississippi Humanities Council and the American Philosophical Association. UM contributors to the event include the departments of Philosophy and Religion, Political Science and Public Policy Leadership, and the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Lecture Series Committee, College of Liberal Arts, Office of Disability Services, Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and Office of the Provost.
For hotel reservations, call 1-888-4UM-ROOM (1-888-486-7666). For more symposium information, go to or contact Eric Weber at or call 662-915-1336.