Debility and Frailty – on whose terms?

Feminist Review Issue 111, themed ‘Debility and Frailty’ was published earlier this month. In this blogpost, Yasmin Gunaratnam draws out the key conceptual and theoretical ways in which this issue of the journal discusses disability and its intersectional living, cultural representation and geopolitics. 

Our call for papers for the new Feminist Review themed issue on “Debility and Frailty” took some of its inspiration from Nasa Begum’s article “Disabled Women and the Feminist Agenda”, published in Feminist Review in 1992. Disability activist Begum, who died in 2011, demanded that feminists give attention to how the lives and concerns of disabled people are marginalised in both feminist and disability politics: “Writing as an Asian disabled woman I want to open up a debate about the position of disabled women and demand that a concerted effort is made to ensure that our needs, wishes and aspirations are incorporated into all feminist debates” (p.70). We hoped that more than two decades later, a themed issue of the journal might build upon Begum’s demands and provide further opportunities to discuss disability and its intersectional living, cultural representation and geopolitics.

Although we invited contributions on both “debility” and “frailty”, most of the papers in the issue have taken up matters of debility – a category radicalised from its heavily medical encodings by those in critical disability studies, history and feminism. The term has been used by the medical historian Julie Livingston to refer to ‘the impairment, lack, or loss of certain bodily abilities’ (2005, p.113). More recently, the feminist scholar and queer theorist Jasbir Puar (2012) has elaborated on Livingston’s framing of the concept, and it is Puar’s work that has generated much interest among our contributors.

For Puar, the relentless pursuit of profit creates debility through the slow depletion of marginalized populations. At the same time anxieties about health, disability and needs for care are financially exploited. Puar’s complex analysis investigates what is at stake in the demand for bodily capacity and also how new technologies (such as those that calculate our risks of disease) are redistributing the meaning of health, disease and disability so that the boundaries between disabled and non-disabled bodies are insecure. “The political mandate behind such … a move from disability to debility” Puar writes, “would not be to disavow the crucial political gains enabled by disability activists globally, but to invite a deconstruction of what ability and capacity mean, affective and otherwise, and to push for a broader politics of debility that destabilizes the seamless production of abled-bodies in relation to disability.” (p. 166).

Remarking on our aspiration to consider both of the terms debility and frailty in the themed issue, Margrit Shildrik suggests that, “One might well argue that frailty remains better grounded in lived experience, that it allows us to face the differences of ageing or ill-health head on.” (p.13). Shildrik’s article “living on; not getting better”, with a focus upon British austerity politics, questions whether the concept of debility is any more useful experientially, politically and empirically than disability. In proposing a “disability politics of transness”, Alexandre Baril feels that the concept of debility can be useful in developing a composite or “assemblage” model, which recognises that the experience of transness can sometimes be debilitating. Baril ventures, “The application of tools from disability studies to trans issues in the proposed assemblage not only uncovers cisnormativity in disability movements, but also denounces ableism in trans movements.” (p.37).

In her essay on taking the play that she wrote about her disabled son to India – “Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong” – Rahila Gupta remains uncertain about the political value of either of the terms debility or frailty. “Both terms imply weakness, brittleness, delicacy” Gupta feels, “connotations that take away agency from disabled people and emphasise their need for care and dependency and perhaps reflect the carer’s perspective.” For Anna Hickey-Moody, Puar’s conceptualisation of debility risks erasing differences of sensation, time and affect between bodies. She turns to feminist new materialist theory and arts practices with people with intellectual disabilities to demonstrate how such methods of feminist practice can become “a form of activism that allows us to bring out and appreciate modes of being and practices of relationality that are not yet perceptible or, if they are perceptible and visible, are often undervalued.” (p.160)

Despite a seeming reluctance to investigate how “frailty” as a category might contribute to feminist projects, as editors of the issue we felt that there is a need for more critical discussion of the term, especially its gendered connotations and roots. In her research for the issue, Feminist Review editor Sadie Wearing came across a fascinating text, The Aegis of Life from 1830 (already by then in its 20th edition) in the British Library. The Aegis of Life is a vivid example of the overlapping of anxieties over sexuality and gendered expressions of productivity and fitness within the concepts of frailty and debility. These find expression in the history of sexuality in the equation of (sexual) debility and (human) frailty, with forms of sexual dysfunction caused by (among other things, including ‘intense study’) indulgence in ‘self-abuse’.

More generally, as well as drawing attention to the historical legacy of words and signification, we would like to know more about what might be happening in the apparent feminist reluctance, or at least ambivalence, in engaging with frailty and its associations with bodily weakness, susceptibility and a wearing away? Is there a risk that frailty can become an abjected other of debility? And if so, then with what consequences?

You can tweet to Yasmin or follow her tweets: @YasminGun.









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 http://www.socialtextjournal.org/periscope/2010/11/ecologies-of-sex-sensation-and-slow-death.php.


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