Debility, disability and the human

Following the publication of the latest issue of Feminist Review 111 on ‘Frailty and Debility’, Dan Goodley and Rebecca Lawthom write a blogpost on the recent developments in the discourse in the field. They are optimistic about the potential of the notion of debility to provide a place where those of us failed by late capitalism can connect around our shared precarity. But they also have some critical responses to debility.

Disability studies has much to say about the human. Historically, disabled people have been excluded from the category. And our contemporary socio-economic times of austerity risk, yet again, dehumanising disabled people. We live in a time of neoliberal-ableism where the privatisation of the self, the marketisation of everyday life and mantras associated with austerity politics are enshrined in a belief that global citizens will work and shop themselves into positions of self-sufficiency that no longer require the support of government nor the services of welfare systems (Goodley, 2014).

Disability reminds us that being human need not follow such a rigid definitional process and that human worth is so much more than labouring and consuming. Indeed, we know that being human means being vulnerable and this inherent vulnerability has long provided a meeting point for activism, harking back to long-held debates in feminism especially around an ethics of care as a response to human vulnerability (Kittay, 2007). Disability studies, too, has consistently made a case for human qualities associated with interdependence and support. Being human is precarious. We need other humans and non-humans in order to live.

Jaspir Puar has recently introduced herself to the disability studies field by reclaiming debility as a political and human commons on which we can find comradeship (Puar, 2007). We welcome any theorisation of vulnerability when it captures the ways in which the human body risks being exposed; worked to death through its engagement with neoliberal capitalism. We also welcome the notion of a debility commons: a place where those of us failed by late capitalism connect around our shared precarity. But, we also have some critical responses to debility.

First, we wonder if debility might feed into recent discourses associated with the frailty of the human condition that is viewed as a pathology requiring the interventions of psy-practitioners (and thus further augmenting their professionalization of everyday life). Engaged scholar activists such as Psychologists Against Austerity have recently noted that neoliberal discourses around unemployment require people to submit to their own vulnerabilities in ways that their lack of socio-economic activity as an indicator of personal deficiency. Psychologists against austerity have identified five Austerity Ailments:  Humiliation and Shame, Fear and Mistrust, Instability and Insecurity, Isolation and Loneliness; Being, Trapped and Powerless. In contrast to the politicised version of debility espoused by Puar, debility risks being folded into these austerity ailments which are then picked up on by the discipline of psychology as requiring interventions ranging from confidence building to strengths assessment to cognitive behavioural therapy. Precarity is positioned very much within the individual. And this presumes that the individual has the agency to transform their thinking and behavior (to get better, to gain more capacity, that they need to change), thus sidestepping structural aetiologies of precarity (Goodley and Ecclestone, 2014). And this kind of discourse positions neoliberal ideology as natural, austerity is needed and debility as something to be managed. We heard recently at a conference that debility is the last thing that disabled people need in a time when their vulnerabilities are being writ large in these troubling political times.

Second, we wonder if the horizontal appeal of debility – as a shared category and common for us all to occupy in a time of austerity – risks undoing the political work of disability activism. Our own sense is that the distinction between humanness (embodied in neoliberal-able humanist discourses) and disability (a dominant signifier of being very much Other than human) is very much alive and well in our late capitalist society. In collapsing this binary – in calling out to debility – we risk ignoring the very material, immaterial and phenomenological ways in which disabled people are excluded from the rigid humanist human category and, perhaps even more importantly, bypassing the radical work done by disability to the human world. Whilst the British Equality and Human Rights Commission has morphed into an umbrella organization for all diverse groups it is interesting to note that the organization has retained a disability committee – in recognition of the important differences that remain for disabled people and their allies. The horizontal appeal of a term such as debility – which we welcome as a political strategy for bringing disability together with other transformative identities associated with queer, feminism and postcolonial thinking – risks erasing the political potency of disability politics; a politics that has often not touched the sides of political debate (historically ignored by Marxist, feminist and postcolonial thought to name but a few transformative arenas who can be accused of being at the very least disability-lite in their work). From a critical and often excluded sitpoint, disability studies alerts us to the ways which the binary of able-disabled, valued-worthless and capacity-debility are very much alive and well in the world.

We welcome the new issue of Feminist Review. Scholar activism needs to engage with new terms from the academy, such as precarity and debility, whilst working and advocating with allies who do not have such access to vocabulary. Many facets associated with debility work for us: but only alongside a politics of disability.


Goodley, D. (2014). Dis/ability studies: Theorising disablism and ableism. London: Routledge.

Ecclestone, K. & Goodley, D. (2014): Political and educational springboard or straitjacket? Theorising post/human subjects in an age of vulnerability, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2014.927112

Kittay, E. (2007). ‘A Feminist Care Ethics, Dependency and Disability.’ APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy 6(2), 3–7.

Puar, J.K. (2009): Prognosis time: Towards a geopolitics of affect, debility and capacity, Women & Performance: A journal of feminist theory, 19 (2), 161-172 Retrieved 5th June 2013


Dan Goodley is Professor of Disability Studies and Education at the University of Sheffield. His writing has sought to unravel and contest the dual process of ableism and disablism including Dis/ability Studies (2014, Routledge) and Disability Studies (2011, Sage). He is a father to two daughters, a keen Nottingham Forest FC football fan and a Beatles obsessive.
Rebecca Lawthom is Professor of Community Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her work engages at the intersections of feminism, disability and migration. Publications include Community Psychology (Wiley Blackwell, 2011, with Kagan, Burton and Duckett) and Qualitative Methods in Psychology: A research guide (Open University Press, 2012, with Banister, Bunn, Burman, Daniels, Duckett, Parker, Runswick Cole, Sixsmith and Goodley). She loves Glastonbury Festival and the music of Ron Sexsmith.

Tweet Dan and Rebecca at: @DanGoodley @RebeccaLawthom

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