The feminist philosophy of “ethics of care” has been important for disability studies inasmuch as it helps us see caregiving as widespread and admirable, rather than as a failure of autonomy. Care ethicists usually imagine care as either an institutional situation or an intimate dyad. However, in “Critical Care,” I add a third case in a midrange scale: the care community. The care community is a voluntary social formation, composed of friends, family, and neighbors, that coalesces around someone in need. It is my contention that by exploring the care community, we can make important aspects of care visible and rethink care relationships. What we see in care communities is a process, rather than a preset care structure, and that fluidity allows us to interrogate the conditions under which care can develop and the dynamics of extended care. I use Victorian fiction to showcase care communities, since novels of this period are marked by ubiquitous spontaneous small groups forming around people who are ill or hurt, but I also make a case that care communities continue to exist today, particularly among queer communities and people of color, performing a vital function in our ordinary lives. Finally, I argue that care communities can help us fundamentally rethink disability as a need like any other need rather than an inherent identity. Eva Feder Kittay has argued that care relations are the foundation of civic society; in that case, disability and the care community that arises in response to it are not marginalized cases but are what, profoundly, makes social life possible.

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