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Debility and disability justice

Updated Jan 8 2024

In The Right to Maim, Jasbir Puar uses the concept of “debility”—bodily injury and social exclusion brought on by economic and political factors—to disrupt the category of disability and the neoliberal concept of disability justice.

Puar uses the term debilitation to describe what happens to Mohammed and so many others in Gaza that our neoliberal frame of disability rights can’t capture. She explains that debility can’t be understood as an identity like disability, which is usually thought of as an event that happens to an individual, after which they just need accommodations, access, and personal empowerment to be included in society. Rather, debility is what happens when a state makes an entire population available for mass injury — a denial of disability rights altogether.1

This leads to cognitive dissonance and egregious hypocrisy, where a state perpetuating genocide can nonetheless claim themselves a champion of disability justice within that framework of disability rights:

Israel is, in fact, a signatory on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The IDF proudly claims to be the world’s largest employer of autistic people, and in August, an ambassador told the UN that Israel is committed to eliminating ableism. But this disability rights frame, which for a long time, has been led and theorized by white disabled people who live in the US and Europe, doesn’t map onto the experiences of racialized groups who are targeted en masse by the state.2

It’s back to that same concept of worthy victims and who is deserving. The entire essay from Jesse Meadows is worth a read.

When repression is globalized, our solidarity must be, too.

Currently, we’re seeing the same thing happen in the US with COVID and the subsequent debilitating experience of Long COVID. In response to NPR platforming a woman who sees her disabled husband’s new social limitations as an irritation he is personally inflicting on her, rather than an institutional problem being inflicted on all of us, Julia Doubleday calls out the injustice for what it is. She writes:

This article is not merely an upsetting look at an individual’s victim-blaming mindset about her husband’s indefinite exclusion from public spaces. It is a piece of propaganda intended to further the perception that demands for COVID mitigation are unreasonable complaints, rather than critical activism for basic public health infrastructure.

It’s the same denial of civil rights, blaming the victim instead of urging awareness and action.

It is a classically neoliberal world view, one that places the onus of the difficult situation on the individual over the collective, that blames the sufferer rather than investigating the underlying root causes of the suffering. “My husband can’t dine indoors because every restaurant is currently violating the ADA” is not a piece NPR will ever publish; it is, however, both a more accurate summation of the problem, as well as one that invites action rather than acceptance.3

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  2. ibid ↩︎

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