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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchGeopolitics of Disability and the Ablenationalism of Refuge

Geopolitics of Disability and the Ablenationalism of Refuge

Authors: Jenna M. Loyd, Anna J. Secor, Patricia Ehrkamp

Affiliation: Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA, Department of Geography, Durham University, Durham, UK, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, USA. 

Organization/Publisher: Geopolitics

Date/Place: March 2, 2023/UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 29 


Keywords: Geopolitics, Disability, Ablenationalism, Refugee Resettlement 



In 2018, the USCIS proposed changes to the N-448 form, which would allow disability exceptions for certain naturalization requirements. The form, signed by a medical authority, confirms a physical or mental disability lasting over 12 months, hindering language and civics learning, which are required to pass the test. In 2019, the test was updated to include questions on daily functioning and drug-related causes. This change highlights the intersection of ableism and nationalism in refugee resettlement and naturalization practices. The authors of this article aim to address how the regulation of disability within the migration governance system reflects and perpetuates able-bodied norms of citizenship in the context of refugee resettlement and naturalization in the US.


The management of disability in migration governance is a geopolitical matter, linking cross-border movement with national sovereignty and nationalism. This article examines the connection between disability, migration governance, and geopolitics, particularly in the context of refugee resettlement. It explores how ablenationalism, an ideology that privileges able-bodiedness, intersects with the geopolitical dynamics of disability. The study focuses on the experiences of militarized refugees and their resettlement, shedding light on the perpetuation of ablenationalism in this process. By drawing parallels to the displacement of Iraqi refugees resulting from US militarism, the article highlights the intertwined nature of disability, geopolitics, and refugee resettlement.


The article emphasizes the need to bring attention to the interplay of refugee administration with various forms of social and political domination, such as liberalism, patriarchy, racism, and heteronormativity. Bureaucratic procedures, documentation, and diagnostic classifications play crucial roles in processes related to asylum, naturalization, and disability benefits. These administrative tasks, collectively known as bio-certification, aim to verify an individual’s biological belonging within a regulated group. Medical classifications used to regulate bodies reinforce norms of able-bodiedness and able-mindedness, influenced by power dynamics related to race, elitism, and gender. These categories, although socially constructed and subject to change, are employed by states for population control. However, the pursuit of perfect identification through bio-certification falls short due to its inherent imperfections. Consequently, individuals who face difficulties are individually scrutinized and labeled as “disability cons,” suspected of fabricating their impairments or deceiving the system. During the asylum process, asylum officers often scrutinize the narratives provided by asylum seekers, searching for inconsistencies or signs of potential fraud as grounds for rejecting their claims. This suspicion is applied even when instances of fraud are infrequent. The authors examine how this scrutiny intersects with the naturalization process for refugees with disabilities, leading to their disenfranchisement and reinforcing exclusion based on able-bodiedness and nationality.


This study focuses on the United States and incorporates fieldwork conducted in multiple locations with significant Iraqi refugee resettlement. The authors collected documents and conducted interviews and focus groups involving over sixty participants within the country. Professionals working in refugee resettlement and mental health care systems were cautious not to reduce refugees solely to their traumatic experiences. Through conversations with individuals working in agencies and community centers providing support services to refugees, it became evident that the process of naturalization is often difficult and distressing. USCIS interviews, in particular, could trigger anxiety and reawaken traumatic memories for some individuals, reminiscent of past interrogations they had endured in the places they had fled from. Additionally, some clients faced challenges passing the civics and/or English portions of the interview due to factors such as disability or life circumstances. As a consequence, many applications were denied, sometimes repeatedly, which can have significant repercussions, including the loss of entitlements like Social Security Income and the inability to exercise citizenship rights.


Nirmala Erevelles highlights the significant role of war in generating disabilities in a world that remains unwelcoming to disabled individuals. This observation was made during a period when disability gained recognition as an international issue, marked by the UDHR and the enactment of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2008. However, alongside this global acknowledgment of disability rights, there was also an increase in inequalities. The term “ablenationalism” came into use to describe discourses and policies that favor able-bodied inclusion norms as the default standard for citizenship while treating individuals with disabilities as exceptions. The medical model of disability views impairments as inherent to individual bodies, which can be treated or rehabilitated. However, the social model of disability, originating from disability activism, challenges this perspective by asserting that impairments themselves are not inherently disabling. Instead, it argues that oppressive social, cultural, and material contexts create disabilities. In this context, ablenationalism becomes significant as it also obscures the transnational causes of disability influenced by neo-colonial and imperial forces. For instance, Soldatic highlights the role of the global arms trade and imperial warfare in shaping the experiences of people in the global South, which manifest in their bodies and minds, reflecting the injustice inherent in geopolitical power exercised through biopolitics. Disability organizations, both in the US and internationally, opposed the Iraq War, concerned that it would divert attention from domestic policies aimed at reducing entitlements for disabled individuals. The use of ablenationalism rhetoric further contributed to concealing the impacts of war on both Iraqis and disabled people within the US. The UNHCR has implemented a tool to identify vulnerable groups, including disabled individuals, in order to enhance their opportunities for migration. However, this has resulted in a hierarchy of mobility for people with disabilities, favoring those with milder disabilities over those with more severe impairments. The refugee and disability service systems show a lack of integration and a reliance on medical and charity models, failing to effectively address disability in humanitarian actions. This creates a paradox where states, responsible for causing impairments through war, offer resettlement as a form of freedom to refugees.


The N-648 medical exception form plays a role in establishing a connection between the person’s diagnosis, impairment, and their capacity to fulfill the standard requisites for naturalization. It requires a medical professional to explain how a diagnosed condition or impairment hinders an individual’s ability to meet the English and civic knowledge requirements. A 2020 report written during the Trump administration highlights concerns regarding the use of generic explanations in medical diagnosis-related immigration applications. The report emphasizes that boilerplate language without specific details or individualized assessments may raise doubts about the authenticity of the provided information. Such generic language, while accurately reflecting the medical diagnosis, can be seen as a pattern that triggers suspicion and may lead to further inquiries or fraud investigations. The report stresses the importance of conducting thorough and personalized assessments of medical information in immigration applications, considering the unique circumstances of each applicant.


Furthermore, doctors who complete immigration-related forms for refugees encounter challenges as they are not able to bill health insurance or Medicaid for their services. This leaves refugees with the option to pay for the services themselves or rely on doctors who offer pro bono assistance. USCIS officials, responsible for assessing disability in immigration applications, often rely on their own judgments and are unfamiliar with certain diagnoses. They may make determinations of ability and disability based on personal judgments, including assessing functioning and even being suspicious if an applicant possesses a driver’s license. The Social Security Administration also considers functioning as a factor in benefits assessments, potentially leading to the denial of benefits if individuals can perform daily activities. The cultural assumption that an impairment must be absolute and unchanging leads to suspicions and criminal implications when even slight indications of “normal” function are observed. In contrast, the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF) recognizes that disability is influenced by social and environmental factors. Unlike immigration-related disability assessments, the ICF takes into account an individual’s functioning within their context, aligning with the social model of disability.


Narrating one’s life in a way that aligns with bureaucratic requirements is challenging due to several factors. Outside studies on refugee resettlement have shown that the non-alignment of loss and trauma in terms of timing makes it difficult to provide coherent and linear accounts of experienced violence in legal contexts. The complexity goes beyond trauma and retroactivity, as the “truth” of events is not fixed and immutable. Instead, there is a recognition that the truth of what happened is subjective and influenced by the time and place of its expression. The authors aim to challenge exclusionary practices based on able-bodied nationalism and highlight the ongoing effects of war and violence on resettled individuals. Research has established that certain events can become traumatic for individuals, particularly when combined with exacerbating factors, such as those experienced during the process of resettlement in a new country. This highlights the long-term impact of such events and the challenges individuals may face in adapting to their new environment. The imposition of non-realistic expectations of immutability reflects the pervasive fantasy that disability is a fixed and easily identifiable category. This belief persists despite the realities of fluctuating abilities experienced by individuals. Similarly, the expectation of a consistent narrative, particularly between initial interviews and later forms, overlooks the inhumanity within the system. This emphasis on consistency and fixed categorization reinforces ablenationalism within the naturalization process.


The article also highlights that the state’s refusal to acknowledge the mutability of personal experiences can lead to the denial of permanent residency or naturalization. This denial creates disabling conditions by obstructing individuals’ right to have rights. The intertwined relationship between war and refuge further exacerbates this situation. Despite instructions in the USCIS Policy Manual not to question medical professionals’ statements, USCIS officers often override medical opinions and claim the authority to determine the ‘truth’ of resettled refugees’ lives based on their own judgments. This extends the scrutiny present in broader processes of biocertification. The authors mention an immigration attorney’s observations regarding changes in immigration cases handled during the Trump administration. The attorney notices a shift towards finding reasons to disqualify applicants rather than helping them gain benefits. There is an increase in questioning and denial of N-648 forms, with officers attempting to diagnose individuals themselves, which is not their role. The attorney also highlights how officers’ questioning extends back to the refugee interview, eliciting graphic details and disregarding the complexity of individuals’ experiences. This highlights the limitations of trauma-informed practices within a legal context that prioritizes specific details and forms of narration. The coercive terms of the state take precedence over trauma-informed approaches when the choice to withhold difficult pasts can lead to the loss of rights and potential deportation.


The main conclusion of the article is that the regulation of disability within the migration governance system perpetuates able-bodied norms of citizenship, creating barriers and potential discrimination for individuals with disabilities seeking refuge or citizenship. The authors argue that the current practices and interpretations of disability within the immigration system contribute to the exclusion and marginalization of disabled individuals, reinforcing the idea that disability is a hindrance to full membership in society. Therefore, they emphasize the need for a more inclusive and rights-based approach to disability within migration policies to ensure equal opportunities and protection for all individuals. Furthermore, the authors present disability as a social construct, shaped by social norms, attitudes, and structures, rather than solely an inherent individual characteristic. They aim to highlight the presence of ableism within migration politics and its perpetuation of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.


Considering the authors’ line of thinking requires a reevaluation of migration policies to ensure they are inclusive and considerate of the needs and rights of disabled individuals. This may involve revising assessment processes, removing barriers, and developing frameworks that account for the social and environmental factors that influence disability. Furthermore, embracing the authors’ argument means challenging ableism within migration governance and addressing discriminatory practices and attitudes towards disabled individuals. Respecting the points made in this article entails rethinking the narrative that views disability primarily through a medical lens. Instead, governments must adopt a more comprehensive understanding of disability and acknowledge the social, cultural, and environmental factors influencing disability and the experiences of disabled migrants. The main purpose of this article is to examine and critique the intersection of disability, migration, and nationalism within the context of refugee resettlement and the naturalization process in the US. The authors seek to explore how the regulation of disability within migration governance reflects geopolitical issues and reinforces able-bodied norms of citizenship. They aim to shed light on the ways in which militarized refuge, bureaucratic procedures, and diagnostic classifications contribute to the reproduction of able-nationalist exclusion and the denial of impairment in the process. Furthermore, the article highlights the challenges faced by refugees with disabilities, the importance of individualized assessments in immigration applications, and the need to recognize the social and environmental factors that affect disability functioning. Overall, the text seeks to critically analyze and challenge the prevailing systems and ideologies that perpetuate ableism and nationalism within the context of migration and disability.

By: Sara El Souhagy, CIGA Research Intern



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