The System is Down
The System is Down: The Ableism of Texas’ Power Grid, Covid Response, and Disability Representation
On February 15, 2021 around the tenth hour without power in my rental home in Huntsville, Texas, the temperature inside was dipping to 45 degrees. My lift chair, which I rely on because of mobility issues, was rendered useless. My partner was able to use a gait belt to get me up. I wiped down my inner thigh with an alcohol swab and injected medication by candlelight. I know I was taking it much earlier than I was supposed to, but I was also worried about the status of my injectable medication—which must be refrigerated but kept above freezing. The following day, without water due to frozen pipes, we melted snow over a small gas camping stove to have clean water to replace my colostomy bag and change wound dressings.
The power grid failure left 4.5 million people in Texas without power. As the 2019 PG&E Blackouts in California have demonstrated, power outages and rolling blackouts are a major disability issue. While the lack of power, mobility, and water was worrisome for my white, middle-class family, the lack of vital services and related problems were even more challenging and dangerous for many multiply marginalized people across Texas. This is especially true for poor and minority communities, who are often the first to lose power and the last to have it reconnected.
The power grid failure presented unique and dangerous challenges for other vulnerable populations as well, including people living in nursing homes and unhoused people. And many incarcerated people in Texas prisons—who are disproportionately Black, Latinx, poor, and/or disabled people—who dealt with cold temperatures, frozen pipes and overflowing toilets. Incarcerated Texans feared they would freeze to death in their sleep.
Immigrants detained by the United States government—another population frequently oppressed under multiple systems—were also dealing with unsafe conditions. At the South Texas Residential Center (the largest immigration detention center in the United States), a mother detained by ICE told NBC News that restroom facilities were unavailable and that her daughters developed allergic reactions to contaminants in the water, and others reported overflowing toilets and lack of electricity.
As Texans were freezing, some of our elected officials made national news headlines for their irresponsibility during the blackouts. Perhaps the most widely circulated critiques were of Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who made headlines for choosing to fly with his family to vacation in Cancun during the crisis. And then for blaming his decision on his daughters. And again for leaving his dog behind.
In response to the power grid, Governor Abbott went on national television, placing blame for the power grid failure squarely on renewable energy sources—which has been both fact-checked as false and called out as a partisan political move from a politician who has accumulated $26 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies. But these comments also deflect from how Governor Abbott is responsible for the state of Texas’s energy grid: Abbott personally appoints the Public Utility Commission responsible for regulating the state’s power grid. The Texas Tribune reports that the Texas state government has known about the vulnerabilities of the power grid for years, but ultimately chose not to address those problems in favor of greater profits for energy providers and appeasing energy companies.Officials are currently investigating if energy producers choose to purposefully limit energy production to inflate energy costs.
We don’t have an exact tally of how many people were killed by the freezing temperatures and loss of vital services, and we likely never will. Elected officials in Texas ultimately chose profits over the wellbeing of their constituents. And disabled and vulnerable Texans are left to deal with the aftermath of those choices.
Two weeks after what my students have dubbed “freeze week,” people across Texas were still managing crises stemming from the mishandling of the winter storm and freezing temperatures. Amid navigating crises, Texas Governor Abbott announced he would end Texas COVID19 restrictions by Executive Order—despite public health officials urging him not to—including allowing all businesses to reopen at 100% capacity as well as rescinding the mask mandate.
As a disabled Texan, I have my own critiques of these already flimsy measures: The mask mandate, for example, was poorly enforced. Because I am immunocompromised as a result of overlapping chronic illnesses, I stay home when I can. But my job as a teacher has required me to be in the classroom, and not everyone obeys the mask mandate on my campus. When I have had to go into pharmacies or doctor’s offices, unmasked people seem to be everywhere.
And the burden to enforce these policies are too often placed on minimum wage workers and other “essential workers” who shouldn’t be on the frontlines of enforcing the state’s policies to begin with. On my own college campus, when I politely asked a student to put on their mask, they told me to “f*ck [my] mother.” Making individual employees enforce the government’s response to the pandemic was an embarrassingly weak COVID response.
While the mask mandate itself was imperfect, at least it was something. But now, as Texas lags behind other states in vaccinations per capita, as over 200 people in Texas are killed by the Coronavirus each day, Gov. Abbott has chosen to reverse these vital protections.
Abbott’s messaging about coronavirus response centers personal responsibility, freedom, and independence rather than leadership. “Today’s announcement doesn’t abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year,” Abbott tweeted, “Instead, it’s a reminder that each person has a role to play in their own personal safety & the safety of others.” Rather than take accountability for his administration’s shortcomings in addressing the pandemic, Abbott is putting the onus on his constituents, tweeting that the executive order is “ensuring that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.”
Putting aside for a moment Abbott’s choice to literally put “businesses” before “families,” Abbott’s tweet lays bare the fantasy behind his COVID response: the freedom of self-determination. But state officials actively stood in the way of communities determining their own coronavirus response: for example, when a Dallas County Commissioners Court voted to prioritize vaccine distribution in Black and Latinx neighborhoods most impacted by the coronavirus, the state threatened to reduce the number of vaccines available unless the court changed its distribution plan, which they ultimately did to avoid being penalized by the state.
A vaccine distribution that skews drastically to white populations—despite Black and Latinx Texans having been most impacted by coronavirus—is just one example of how Abbott’s policies run counter to his empty promise of free choice by actively blocking communities from making decisions. At the same time, Abbott’s reversal of mask mandates and limited capacity policies make it more dangerous for essential workers to do their jobs and put disabled peoples lives at risk, which make vulnerable populations significantly less free. Like with the state’s power grid issues, the reversal of these COVID protections will disproportionately harm disabled people, especially those multiply marginalized. In short, Abbott’s policies make certain disabled Texans do not have “the freedom to determine their own destiny.”
The Texas governor is himself a disabled person. In 1984, Greg Abbott, then a 26-year-old Law School graduate, was injured by a falling tree branch, and has been a wheelchair user since. Of course, Abbott is an incredibly privileged disabled person: he is white, a multimillionaire, controls an alarming amount of social and political capital, and holds other positions that are socially privileged. All of these things shape his politics and policies, alongside his experiences as a wheelchair user. While we have disability representation here in Texas, it’s clear that it isn’t enough. Abbott’s policies and rhetoric simply do not center disabled people, much less consider multiply marginalized disabled Texans.
Abbott’s record on disability policy is abysmal. When Abbott was the state’s attorney general, he routinely fought against disabled people, repeatedly claiming disabled people don’t have the right to sue the state of Texas for discrimination. As governor, besides Abbott’s mishandling of the power grid and his response to the pandemic, outlined here, the Governor’s office has harmed disabled Texans by removing protections for LGBTQA and Disabled Texans seeking social work services as well as egregious voter suppression including barriers to disabled people voting. Abbott’s work has largely enforced ableism.
Abbott’s governorship is why disability representation isn’t enough. Disability justice—a framework created by disabled queers and activists of color that addresses how ableism is tied to colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and other forms of oppression—calls for leadership by the most impacted, or as Aurora Levins Morales has explained about disability justice, “We are led by those who most know these systems.” And Abbott doesn’t best know these systems: Abbott is disabled, but as a result of intersecting privileges that mitigate how he experiences disability, he’s not the most impacted by the ways these systems fail disabled people. Abbott doesn’t experience the bulk of the failures of these systems.
But neither do I: my own experiences as a disabled person living in Texas among the failure of a power grid and a dangerously poor COVID response have still been mitigated by my whiteness, gender, education, and other identities that are all unfairly privileged by many systemic injustices that harm many other people. Disability justice recognizes that we all embody multiple communities, some privileged, some oppressed. That doesn’t mean that I’m not harmed by these systems as a disabled person, but that others at intersecting sites of oppression are harmed more—like disabled incarcerated Texans, like Black and Latinx disabled Texans, and many others.
As Texas rethinks our power grid and struggles with our collective response to COVID, it’s vital that we center the perspectives of those most impacted. We need to be sure that we’re not ultimately redesigning these systems for the white and wealthy, and not only reevaluating these systems when they fail for the white and wealthy, but looking at how all our systems—how immigration, the prison system, food distribution, housing, education policies, and so many others—consistently fail queer and/or BIPOC disabled Texans. The systems are down, and disability representation isn’t nearly enough.
Q&A with Kemi Yemi-Ese, Disability Visibility Project
“Still in Texas” by Emily Wolinsky, Disability Visibility Project
Ep 75: Coronavirus and Disaster Planning with Germán Luis Parodi and Valerie Novack, Disability Visibility podcast
Protecting Seriously Ill Consumers from Utility Disconnections: What States Can Do to Save Lives Now, National Consumer Law Center, February 2021.
Adam Hubrig (he/him/his) is a multiply-disabled caretaker of cats. His research on disability has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Reflections, Community Literacy Journal, The Journal of Multimodal Rhetoric, and his words have also found homes in Brevity, Typehouse Magazine, and The Lincoln Underground. He currently resides in Huntsville, Texas, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Sam Houston State University.
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