Protestors outside an official building with signs reading 'End the Hostile Environment.'
Monday April 30, 2018. Protestors from Global Justice Now demonstrate outside the Home Office in London demanding an end to the Hostile Environment policy, ahead of parliamentary debate on the Windrush scandal. Photo: David Mirzoeff/Global Justice Now

A manifesto for disabled immigrants

Writer Bhavani Esapathi explores the intersections of disability and immigration, and how labels can do more harm than good for the people being labeled. 

We are primarily a very prejudiced society. I know it’s uncomfortable. It might make you feel uneasy; it certainly does not sit well with me. But we need to come together in accepting it if we are to change it.

We identify with categories and labels and ascribe to them emotions and a narration of history written by an exclusive few. While it may help us understand each other quickly by affixing such labels, they also tend to greatly diminish us. The way we understand ourselves is limited by an outdated list of such labels but so too is the way we understand others. The confines of these categories can determine the narrative of your life.

For the sake of testing this argument, let’s consider two such labels that have been hard to escape in our current political climate; immigrant & disabled. These two words have become even more contestable since the pandemic. Why? Because such words are used for governance and policy making which ultimately lead to grave consequences for all of us.

The emotions it conjures when you think about the word immigrant itself should be the reason why we need to stop using it. Sadly, precisely because the word conjures up unsavoury imagery it has continued to exist over the centuries. Immigrants are always those who come in large numbers and with an intention to permanently settle in your country, thereby they are not you but an Other.

They are not the same as expats, you see. It’s almost comical to learn that the word ‘immigrant’ is an American invention and ‘expat’ a British one. Mid-20th century saw the rise of the word ‘expats,’ as wealthy British families sought to take extravagant vacations and the word ‘immigrant’ only saw the light of day as Noah Webster (1829) penned it into the ‘American Dictionary of the English Language.’

The invention of ‘immigration’ as a word tied into the rise in nationalism in the 19th century has led to an implicit ‘Us vs. Them’ argument central to the identity of every immigrant. This means one could never entertain the idea of an immigrant who is just as much part of where they are now as where they came from.

The history behind the term ‘disability’ is one filled with everything that you wish wasn’t true. Beginning from viewing disability as a by-product of incest to the creation of disability in the backdrop of normalcy as defined by the rise of eugenics, as Lennard Davis explains. Of course you can never win if you’re fighting against the ultimate, all-encompassing ideation of a human being which means in one way, all of us are disabled in light of the perfect body but let’s not acknowledge that and continue to hold a certain type of individuals as out of the norm instead. As much as we realise the impossibility and high expectation placed on our bodies set against such untenable heights; we remain captured by our faulty linguistic heritage.

So, if you are a disabled immigrant, chances are you are already intimately familiar with the challenges these terminologies bring to your life. We know that the invention of these words historically was designed to appear as a threat despite being a threat that anybody has yet to see. It is no wonder that our modern-day politics is subsumed with these historical inaccuracies because they are the ones that prove immensely inevitable to disprove. The most recent resurrection of this false dichotomy is the narrative of the skilled & unskilled immigrant and the values they bring forth in themselves.

If you are told to ignore the overwhelming amount of research pointing to immigrants’ roles in this country leading to economic growth (2018 report titled ‘The Fiscal Impact of Immigration on the UK’). We should also let discussions around unskilled labour slip by, seeing as this is no longer an argument based on facts & reality, but one that’s clinging onto the old fashioned ideals of who is the other and why we must distance ourselves from them. Immigrant or disabled, the current political climate will have you believe that you are not needed, wanted or, worse, worthy of having choices in your life.

I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned earlier about the overwhelm all of us feel in our everyday lives. I am feeling uncomfortably uneasy as I type these words myself – admitting that I feel alienated or even betrayed by myself every time I have to utter the words ‘I am an immigrant”, or that ‘I am disabled’ because these labels do not do a very good job at describing me. I am very comfortable in believing that I am not alone in this feeling. I am not an ‘other’ because I am by all accounts more involved in my local community than I ever was in my home country; and I certainly don’t feel disabled because my diagnoses have enabled me to create many wonderful things, including this article. Yet, you cannot understand me without these labels. The second I share these labels as a part of me you lose the ability to ever fully grasp who I really am.

Such is the conundrum we have inherited through language & history. If these labels are inherently flawed, should we be trusting them to serve as a reliable framework from which healthcare & immigration laws are made? Would you be comfortable getting yourself some pet food for dinner tonight? I don’t suppose so, because you are neither a cat nor a dog (presumably). Why should others be forced to follow rules designed for a group of people that don’t exist? Unless a dog or a cat can respond to this article, I urge my fellow disabled immigrants to come forward and define ourselves, because the last man who tried labelling us had one severe shortcoming; he wasn’t us.


Bhavani Esapathi is a writer, maker & social tech activist focussed on governance structures within healthcare and immigration. She is also the Founder of The Invisible Labs; a social tech platform for those living with invisible disabilities. Her most recent project is looking for immigrants who have a story to tell of their experience with hostile environment, you can learn more about the project by going here or visiting her website and saying hello to her on Twitter @bhaesa.