Taking the side of humanity

Reactions to Israel-Gaza coverage, disability advocacy and more

Dear Debriefers,

This edition is back in the Debrief mailbag. There were many reactions to my coverage of the Israel-Gaza war, with appreciation as well as the most substantive criticism I've gotten since starting this newsletter.

Outside of the Middle-East, there are reflections on disability advocacy and how it's changed over a generation in the US and UK, and other correspondence and reactions to recent pieces.

Disability Debrief is supported on a pay-as-you can basis. Thanks to Cara and Tanmoy for new contributions.

Taking the side of humanity

Responses to my piece on Israel and Gaza were mixed. Most feedback was positive about the way I tried to put a disability lens on the conflict, but there were also serious criticisms of what it left out.

Many affirmed the importance of bringing a disability lens. Zora said it was “such a valuable lens, and so generous and fair.” And in Disability Rights Fund's call to protect the rights of persons with disabilities in Gaza, they affirmed that “it is critical to have a disability lens on conflict and prioritize the leadership and lived experiences of persons of disabilities”.

In Disability Thinking Weekday Andrew Pulrang reflected on challenges of supposed “balance” in journalism and how it “too often lets us off the hook from having to make any judgments at all”. He appreciated that I avoided that pitfall:

“I especially like how [Peter] focuses on how both Gazans and Israelis with disabilities are affected by the violence, and how disabled people are involved in various ways in the violence perpetrated by Hamas and the Israeli military. Disabled people are certainly victims of war and other forms of organized violence. But they aren’t exclusively victims.”

A few readers shared how the piece resonated with them. Rebecca found the fact Israel Defense Forces have disability inclusion programmes “particularly shocking”, and for her it “underlines what I see as a very misguided belief that ‘inclusion’ in itself is a solution to anything”.

Adrienne wrote:

“I found this to be something very special - both for taking on an emotional issue and for having a lot of good information about it. I appreciate the care you obviously took to not take sides and to notice the suffering that humans in Israel, Gaza & the West Bank (humans on all sides) are experiencing.

I have attended a pro-Palestinian protest and generally have a lot of judgements of Israel for its ongoing occupation and current right wing government. I'm heart-broken at the destruction in Gaza. That's where I am coming from in this. Your Debrief article did not inflame me; it comforted me with facts.”

Cesar reached the “same non-conclusion” as the article:

“War sucks. It doesn't matter whether you look at it from a disability rights standpoint or from a human rights one. The fact that I know people on both sides doesn't help.”

And Steve thanked me for “thoughtfully taking the side of humanity in this.” But this conflict in particular seems to divide us as to which is humanity's side.

This needs to stop

Critique of the piece came from readers who felt it did not sufficiently acknowledge the systemic nature of violence and oppression of Palestinians.

These concerns gain urgency as Israel's pummelling of Gaza's population continues. Over 11,000 Palestinians are reported dead, including over 4,000 children. The humanitarian catastrophe sees basic necessities cut off, health care destroyed and an estimated 1.6 million people displaced.

Katherine wrote about the importance of context:

“This is a crucial moment to speak about the siege of Gaza and attempted genocide of Palestinians, so I am very glad that you are approaching the issue. However, given your platform and influence, I was deeply concerned about the lack of historical context as well as lack of mention of Israeli apartheid and genocide.”

Katherine also reminds us of the Abolition and Disability Justice Coalition's statement of solidarity with Palestine. Another reader, who prefers to remain anonymous, went further, pointing to a wider failing of the disability sector:

“I really had problems with the piece, and a disability justice framing was missing for me. What does it mean in a broader framework of oppression? The article’s focus took away from the most pressing issue in front of us: a whole population is being bombarded after decades of apartheid and settler colonialism. We cannot be neutral, especially now that a genocide is unfolding.

“For too long, the disability sector has been a close, uncritical partner of Israel, whitewashing the country at the international level, while Palestinians, including those with disabilities, were targets of crimes against humanity. This needs to stop.”

That reader highlighted the Human Rights Watch report on the devastating toll that Israeli's bombardment is having on people with disabilities.

For more, see also Allie Cannington's Crip Call to Action arguing disabled people should be calling for a cease-fire.

As bad as it was in the 1950s

It's not often that we can turn to the situation of disability rights in the UK for a more cheerful tone, but in comparison... Lively discussion came on Fazilet Hadi's piece on the recent history of the disability movement in the UK and how it can go forward.

Andrew Pulrang also commented on this one, seeing the comparisons to be found in other countries, especially the US: “the main themes of progress and retrenchment, acceptance and stigma, hope and discouragement all seem to be there and are easy to recognise.” Andrew also has a recent piece on how progress is real, but so is the ableism in the US:

“There has been significant progress on disability rights, opportunity, and respect that have made life markedly better for at least some disabled people. And most disabled people have more recourse and avenues for improvement than existed decades ago. But still for many, being disabled in 2023 is as bad as it was in the 1950s and before.”

A lively discussion in the comment section saw Heligany agree “that it is time for direct action and protest”:

“The Equality Act is not protecting us and the government are well aware that the fact its a civil issue we have to police ourselves makes it almost impossible for us to have any real impact on the reality of discrimination in our daily lives.”

Liz Crow, “one of the old ‘80s and ‘90s activists” commented that “it’s accurate to say both that we were worse off then and we are worse off now”:

“Back then, we had so little that there was almost nothing to lose, and that both emboldened us but also made the struggle really quite clear. Back then, we were regarded predominantly with pity which, whilst it repelled us, oddly made it easier to garner support. We made progress (and it’s a joy to read Fazilet’s account of that) - but we also failed to grasp fully the changing political context and to understand what we needed to do differently in response. It is that combination of previous gains and changing contexts that has, as Fazilet says, brought us to a different situation now and, I think, one that is more complex, and demanding of us in different ways, from those early days.”

Fazilet herself responds in agreement, telling me that when campaigning “it's definitely easier to have a clear target and fight an obvious injustice”:

“Now, so much is complex and on shifting sands. Liz’s point that it was extreme back in the eighties and nineties – we had nothing, we were fighting for basic things to be put in place – points to a really interesting difference with today. Now, there's a more variable picture, it may be about funding levels, inadequate staffing or poor processes, rather than the principle. There’s also a cloaking of what people really think behind better language and rhetoric. For example, we have an Access to Work scheme, which doesn't work well enough. We then argue about funding and process and get lost in the detail.”

Better angel of our nature

Several readers commented on the impact of last week's interview with a disability activist in Myanmar. Faithful commenter Ogheneruemu Alexander wrote:

“The very first lines got me emotional... Wanting to do something but stifled by stereotypes of disabled people... They think they are are helping us but they are in fact suppressing us.

“Then when we manage to find our way about being contributive, that better angel of our nature to be more, to do more, yet limited by our disabilities and other external dynamics leaves us feeling guilty... It's just the way it is... Anonymous should be told [they're] not alone.”

The situation in Myanmar itself is changing rapidly as non-government forces escalate their attacks on the military government. Erin Cook, in her excellent Dari Mulut ke Mulut, has an update on the quickly-evolving conflict. She generously highlights the Debrief interview, putting it into context and bringing out something that struck me too:

“The whole Q&A is a fascinating, underexplored angle but I was really taken by the insight that people with visible mobility disabilities are assumed by security forces to be deeply anti-junta because the disability is suspected to have been sustained during pro-democracy/anti-junta clashes.”

Glacial pace of political action

Áine's piece on on turning up disabled in the climate movement resonated widely among climate justice activists with and without disabilities. Amanda from Greenpeace Aotearoa spoke to the importance of recognising our own limits:

“Managing that line between the accelerating pace of climate disasters against the glacial pace of political action and then our own capacity to carry on working for change is something that feels super front of mind at the moment. Maybe it's just the end of the year or the prospect of fighting under a rightwing government. Thanks for sharing your astute analysis, Áine.”

Changing concept of care

Recent discussion of care explored how not all in the disability sector are comfortable with using that term or engaging in policy dialogue around it. Stefan Tromel from the International Labour Organisation wrote to thread the needle:

“I think ensuring good working conditions for personal assistance (as care/support workers) is different from allowing service providers to dominate the care/support discussion.

“I understand the concerns related to the term care, which is why the push was made to add support. Having said this, the concept of care is changing (not fast enough, for sure) and is more and more not only considering the views of care providers but also of care receivers.”

Stefan also shared a new video from the European Network on Independent Living, featuring a Day in the Life of a Personal Assistant User.

Prevented from taking risks

And, last but not least, Mark Harrison told me about his new book, Labels Are For Jars Not People, which explores emancipatory approaches to working with young disabled people in the UK.

Mark's work is about making space for positive choice and agency. He described to me how young disabled people are too often blocked from developing themselves:

“Because most state and voluntary sector professional practice and services are rooted in the ‘needs based’ paradigm, Disabled children and young people end up becoming dependent and isolated.  They do not live in the world like their non-Disabled peers, being allowed to learn through experience and making mistakes.  They are mainly denied the usual routes to independence and ‘breaking away’ from parents.  They are often shut out of traditional youth services and the employment market.  They therefore end up dependent on state and voluntary sector services and their parents, reinforcing this dependency.  They are denied opportunities or prevented from taking risks like other young people by overly aggressive protective safeguarding policies, which reinforce the medical model view of the world.”

That's all for today! Do carry on corresponding, as reader insights and views are essential to understand and cover disability issues around the world.



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Thanks, of course, to all our correspondents, whether featured in this piece or otherwise. I'm especially grateful to be trusted with critique of what I've published.

Thanks to many friends and correspondents who've helped me process what's happening in Israel and Palestine.

Thanks to the individuals and organizations whose support makes the Debrief possible.