Philosophical Reflections on Rendering of Disability and Gender in COVID-19 Era

This article presents philosophical reflections on Anita Ghai’s rendition of exclusion of persons with disabilities, its intersections with gender and class in COVID-19 times. Ghai’s paper critiques the liberal and enlightenment ideals of contract, autonomy, rationality and freedom that are exclusionary in nature, thus resulting in erasure or marginalisation of persons with disabilities. Through various narratives (some personal), this article takes us through the challenges faced by persons with disabilities due to the lockdown. 


Anita Ghai’s article in this series makes a case for considering intersectionality, disability, gender, class, caste, (can extend to religion too), abuse that make up the reality of the “disabled body.” Failing to acknowledge this, the disabled remain a body understood as “lack,” “deficit,” “tragedy,” a medical problem and a consequence of theological destinies. In ignoring the reality and lived experience of the disabled body, Ghai makes a case for injustice that is heightened in times of crisis like COVID-19. This article aims to document the challenges faced by persons with disabilities due to lockdown. The taboo on touch, strict restrictions on movements of people, inaccessible as well as insufficient support systems which deprived persons with disabilities access to very basic services (including care giving services) without violating dignity and self esteem. It alludes to the paradox brought about by the pandemic; on the one hand it brings out the vulnerability and interdependence of all species, yet the resulting unparalleled health and fiscal crisis has brought about acute marginalisation and discrimination that has pushed persons with disabilities, particularly women, in a most disadvantaged position. 

With reference to Shelly Tremmain and Foucault’s theory of governmentality, this article highlights the dominating “ableist,” patriarchal, exclusionary, derogatory and phallogocentric power relations that continue to oppress women with disabilities as well as dominate discourses on the pandemic. Ghai’s article also suggests transformative politics, one that acknowledges power hegemony (that causes exclusions) and systematically works towards countering the same (in the hope of a more inclusive world). 

This article is a philosophical reflection, to help one gain an understanding of the assumptions that underlie such exclusions. The first section of the article explains the exclusionary liberal philosophical assumptions that continue to dominate discourses on disabilities as well as pandemics. Section two of the article suggests countering of all “ableist” and patriarchal ideologies through philosophical approaches that acknowledge human interdependence, precariousness and vulnerability of all species (rather than rationality and autonomy) towards an ethico-existential relation of precarity with the “other” (rather than contract-based relations based on scientism). Such an approach alone can counter operations of ableism and patriarchy towards a more inclusive and humane world. 

Disability and Gender in COVID-19 Era: Liberal Assumptions and its Exclusions

Hannah Arendt in her work the Human Condition (1998) explains the meaninglessness of the 20th-century modern world driven by technologically powerful “user-friendly” systems as well as a consumer driven culture that has made our world vulnerable to totalitarianism1 (Human Condition prologue 1–6). Following Arendt’s analysis, it can be argued that promises of progress made by economic globalisation and technology have failed in times of genuine crises2 (such as the COVID-19 pandemic). It has failed to provide meaningful interventions, in fact it renders situations as being usual where it is believed that there is very little that can be done.3 Further, as suggested by Arendt, it creates conditions of totalitarianism. In Origins of Totalitarianism (1976), Chapter 13, “Ideology and Terror,” Arendt explains it as a condition where there is no opposition to an ideology that is based on limited conception of humanity, progress and legitimacy. It is an ideology that eliminates (either literally or through assimilation) all those lives that are believed to be a hindrance, not with the purpose of fulfilling welfare of humankind or particular individuals, rather to manipulate all of humanity to sacrifice “few” in the interest of the “whole” (Arendt 1976: 465–67). 

Arendt elucidates about travel explorations (discovery of America), scientific developments (telescope, heliocentric theory of universe) as that which caused a certain alienation from the earth (Arendt 1998: 245–51) and “shrinkage of space and disappearance of distance” (Arendt 1998: 250). It caused an intense alienation where one arrived at an Archimedean point to navigate around the world, only by losing one’s religious, metaphysical, economic, national and cultural position (Arendt 1998: 270–71). The consequence of this alienation has been a strong focus on the self, the only remaining domain of certainty and knowledge. Arendt notes that Descartes's scepticism established that the senses had to be ceded to an inner faculty with no relationship with the world. Thus, notions of common world and common faculties lost relevance, and absence of these states became necessary conditions to scientific and philosophical theories (Arendt 1998: 280–82). 

Arendt’s analysis is useful in understanding the origin of “ableism.” Disability scholar Fiona Kumari Campbell defines ableism as a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then, is cast as a diminished state of being human (Campbell 2009: 196). Descartes (and the thinkers of the Enlightenment) constructs a notion of self that creates a dualism of mind, body and privileges reason over senses. Thus, scientific inquiry and experimentation become primary ways of understanding the world. Notions like human subjectivity and experience became fragile abstract concepts that have little relevance to human existence (Arendt 1998: 287). Body (and disabilities) became relevant only within the biomedical discourses and this approach continues to frame families, societies and governance. Political liberalism that prescribes contractual freedom as the basis of society is based on such a notion of “ableist” self and a consequence of alienation described by Arendt.    

Hobbes’s Leviathan is based on the theory of cognition that is developed from the mechanistic doctrine of sensation. Hobbes postulated human beings as a complex machine which has a definite and determined part in the functions of a larger and vastly more complicated machine, the state (Hobbes 1966: 8–3). Human behaviour as driven by desires, fear and self interest alone causes individuals to give up their natural right of freedom through mutual transfer of rights.  This is the social contract and basis of commonwealths and governments (Hobbes 1966: 72-79). Thomas Hobbes’ social contract, discussed in Leviathan, is widely known as a key intellectual reference for most influential political ideas for centuries to come  (Kymlicka 1993). 

While contract theories and liberal principles of justice were analysed, and criticised, it became a subject of intense feminist scrutiny with reformulation of the classical contract models in John Rawls’ work, Theory of Justice. Carole Pateman in The Sexual Contract argues that the hypothetical social contract perpetuates sexual inequality which becomes the foundation of liberal democracy. It is a contract between brothers (a fraternal contract) which specifically excludes women. It excluded women from both political life and from the paid labour market, and hence, contributed to transforming patriarchy as a system of domination (Pateman 1988: 16-18). 

Susan Okin, in her work Gender, Justice and Family appropriated/defended the Rawlsian theory of justice as fairness and argued that it must be extended to include institutions like family. Carol Gilligan asserted that the care perspective was an alternative, and more legitimate form of moral reasoning obscured by masculine liberal justice traditions that focused on autonomy and independence. 

Thinkers like Nel Noddings, Annette Baier, Virginia Held, Eva Feder Kittay, Sara Ruddick, and Joan Tronto charged traditional moral approaches with male bias, and asserted the voice of care as a legitimate alternative to the “justice perspective” of liberal human rights theory. Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach aims to integrate the liberal as well as care perspective and suggests extending it to include persons with disabilities. Nussbaum explains capabilities as substantial freedoms that ensure conditions of interrelated opportunities to choose, act and that which ensures freedom of individuals to achieve alternative functioning combinations (Nussbaum 2011: 20-1). Within the framework of capabilities, she explains the act of caring as that which focuses on support for capabilities of life, health and bodily integrity. It supports an individual's control over one’s material and political environment: rather than being regarded as mere property themselves, people with impairments and disabilities are regarded as dignified citizens who have the claim to property, employment and so forth (Nussbaum 2007: 76-9).

Yet, this approach is not sufficiently inclusive as it does not challenge cultural hegemonies and structural barriers that deprive people access to capabilities. This can be explained in the context of gender and disability exclusions kept intact in the capability approach. Mahadevan in her article “Capabilities and Universality in Feminist Politics” argues that firstly, Nussbaum’s capability approach does not adequately problematise the social and economic arrangements that encourage the existence of premodern gender biased attitudes with modern ones. For example, exploitative nature of caste (in this context, disability) can continue to exist even when women attain the measure of capabilities listed (Mahadevan 2012: 80). Further, by merely claiming that public policies should have capability distribution as its agenda, she reinforces the paternalistic premise (Mahadevan 2012: 81). 

In times of crisis like the current pandemic, the exclusions and discrimination deepen as,4 first, the capabilities approach does not explain how a need and priority based approach (that lacks regional priorities or any central coordinating agency) will be protected from a market-driven model where accessibility, quality, costs and efficiency of healthcare services will be driven by the motive of welfare and not profit. Capabilities do not explain how women with disabilities who are even otherwise excluded from all healthcare policies (as they are considered “unproductive”) will receive attention in crises such as pandemics.

The role of national policies is reduced to bandaging the fragmented decentralised approaches, which faces the danger of taking healthcare back to the biomedical model where technology dominates and there would be scant regard for people’s social, economical, cultural and political realities. Ghai’s experiential accounts of challenges faced by persons with disabilities (particularly women) explains the same. Narratives describing neglect, fear of physical frailness, bodily differences and social vulnerability are heightened in pandemics (as described by Ghai). Thus, the liberal feminist approach, like the capability approach, makes a claim to secure people from increasing risks, without questioning the risks themselves; thus only prescribing structural adjustments, not dismantling of structures itself. This has caused increase in discrimination and oppression of persons with disabilities (particularly women as they are further disadvantaged by gender, class, caste) in times of the pandemic. The next section discusses prospects of countering liberal assumptions towards a more inclusive society.  

Countering Exclusions: Opportunities and Challenges in COVID-19 Era 

“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all (Camus 2010: 161).” This quote from Albert Camus’ novel The Plague (1947) best explains the challenge to liberal notions of autonomy and independence. Judith Butler in her book Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? explains that “precarity of life imposes an obligation upon us” (Butler 2009: 2). Butler makes a case, that the vulnerability of the bodies incites a desire to destroy; before such violence can be countered or before we speak of protection and entitlements, one needs to rethink notions of vulnerability, injury, interdependency, bodily persistence, desire, work and the claims of language and social belonging. She makes a case for understanding the body, not as something that is given as scientific and medical approaches insist, rather as that which is crafted by social norms (Butler 2009: 2-3). Butler argues against perceptions that recognise certain bodies and constitutive of personhood and others as “not recognisable,” thus devoid of existence, identity and personhood. Butler urges us to consider how existing norms allocate recognition differentially, norms of selfhood frame recognition of persons as worthy, thus a life is always framed/presented/known through a certain scheme of norms (Butler 2009: 7). Power manipulates the frames and the terms of appearances, thus, presenting to us some lives as worthy and some as not. In our context, this analysis is useful in understanding how scientism, discussed in the previous section has framed some bodies as “abled” (body with fixed set of organs) and some as disabled (body without those fixed set of organs). The latter get left out in liberal contract relations as that which is not “proper personhood” and thus unwanted and unproductive to familial, social or political arrangements.

Countering such totalitarianism (as Arendt would call it) requires that we question all frames that structure our knowledge and political systems. Just as Arendt’s theory proposes that totalitarianism contains its own seeds of destruction (Arendt 1976: 478), Butler argues that frames (totalising tendencies) always fail in their attempt to control and organise, frames provide more meanings than intended for reproduction, thus causing its own breakage. This leads us to a different way of understanding, both the frame's worthiness as well as “its vulnerability to reversal, to subversion, even to critical instrumentalization” (Butler 2009:10). What was once taken for granted, can now become dubious and subject of critical scrutiny. In the context of this article, while lives of persons with disabilities, particularly women are not considered worthy of personhood and recognition, the pandemic presents us with the opportunity to subvert notions of ability/disability, worthy/non-worthy as it challenges us to recognise precariousness as a human condition. 

The pandemic arrests personhood of all people without discrimination, the omnipresent nature of the pandemic makes us aware that life in some sense is always in the hands of the “other.” It implies a dependency on people who we may or may not recognise. As Butler, argues this precariousness, reciprocally implies being intruded upon by the exposure and dependency upon people who are mainly anonymous. Thus, they are not necessarily relations of love or care, they constitute relations not based on familiarity or recognition. Such an understanding challenges notions of we and them, as the self is no longer able to identify itself nor the other in absolute terms. As Butler reads Emannuel Levinas’s notion of alterity, that creates an ambivalence and resists dehumanisation. This creates room for precariousness (living socially) of life (Butler 2009: 14).  

The pandemic thus challenges us with the possibility of rethinking our notions of selfhood, creating the possibility/opportunity of understanding those who are believed to be different/ the other (in this case, women and women with disabilities) as coextensive with our existence. In acknowledging “the other” as that which is unfamiliar, the self opens itself unconditionally to infinity, resisting all tendencies of totalising and exclusions. 

Traditional philosophies (such as Descartes), capture, organise and interpret reality starting from the self/ego. Thus, “the other” is always approached from the point of view of the self’s interest, totalising, violating, appropriating or domesticating it. Levinas argues that this is fatal for intersubjectivity since it admits no other/outside nor transcendence (Levinas 1961: 93-94). This becomes a justification of the tendency to totalise, in this context totalising the disabled body as that which is insufficient and incomplete. Levinas argues for an ethical existential relation of the self and the other where the other becomes the source of normativity (without making it further vulnerable). The other is constitutive of subjectivity and thus the self is obligated to not violate it by totalising it (Levinas 1961: 95-97). 

Michael Foucault in his work The Birth of the Clinic, explains the central role assigned to medicine in the constitution of the society. An interest in epidemics generated a medical consciousness that almost replaced the church in its promise of improving the society (Foucault 2003: 36). The clinic became the primary unit not only of medical knowledge but also of civil societies (Foucault 2003: 39). It created a new language of medical perception that revealed connections between human organisms and the material environment conditions in objective, neutral, measurable and clinically observable ways (Foucault 2003: 9). The language of the clinic became increasingly refined, unintelligible and mystical in ways in which only practitioners could understand thus causing alienation and segregation that became the basis of civil society (Foucault 2003: 208). The Clinic, unfortunately, continues to remain the point of reference for understanding disabilities as well as the pandemics. COVID-19 as a disease that is given to an organisation, hierarchised into families, genera, and species. This picture promises information regarding its nature, spread and configured as that which has symptoms, cause, constitution devoid of any reciprocal social, political, cultural determinants. Thus, diseases are projected as co incidents without any developments (Foucault 2003: 4-5). Unfortunately, disabilities too are understood medically. Thus, the absence of lived experience as epistemological concerns results in failure to address the real concerns of pandemics which is suffering, pain and anguish that results from alienation and exclusions from all governance, policymaking as well as in imagining the new normal.  

To conclude, following Butler, the pandemic presents before us the possibility of imagining this new normal that embraces the concept of existential precarity, a condition that describes vulnerability of our dependence on the anonymous other for our existence, without whom we cannot subsist. It opens an ethical way of thinking of existential connections from the position of “the other” rather than self, thus opens the opportunity of building a more conscientious, inclusive non-violent world that resists totalising tendencies, in this case patriarchal and ableist tendencies.



A version of this article was first presented at the webinar series on Gender Equity and COVID-19 organised by the Women’s Development Cell, University of Mumbai in association with Bunts Sangha’s S. M. Shetty College of Science, Commerce and Management Studies on 15 July 2020. The webinar series was conceptualised by Gita Chadha and Meher Bhoot.

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