Monthly Archives: September 2011

Psycho-emotional disablism and the ‘dys-appearing’ body: Implications for the disability/impairment divide (keynote, 2011)

Reeve, D. (2011) ‘Psycho-emotional disablism and the ‘dys-appearing’ body: Implications for the disability/impairment divide’, paper presented at Theorizing Normalcy and the Mundane (2nd international conference), Manchester Metropolitan University, 14-15 September (keynote).


The social model of disability has been criticised for maintaining an artificial separation of the impaired body from socially constructed disability. Whilst politically this has been very useful in helping the disabled people’s movement recognise and challenge forms of social oppression experienced by people with impairments, this dichotomy fails to recognise the ‘carnal politics of everyday life’ (Paterson and Hughes, 1999). Drawing on phenomenological concepts, these authors showed that when people with impairments experience disabling barriers such as patronising behaviour, then the impaired body is brought into focus, ‘dys-appearing’ because of its perceived ‘abnormality’.

It is clear that the experience of psycho-emotional disablism (Thomas, 2007) which arises from disablist attitudes and behaviours at the interpersonal level, is closely related to Paterson and Hughes’ account of the ‘dys-appearing’ body. Therefore, one aim of this paper is to examine what the concept of social dys-appearance can bring to an analysis of different forms of psycho-emotional disablism. I will show that this provides a useful deconstruction of internalised oppression, identifying the difference between ‘false consciousness’ and ‘double consciousness’. I then extend the analysis to the experiences of ‘passing’ and creating oneself as the ‘disabled subject’ when applying for disability benefits.

These examples show that psycho-emotional disablism is embodied, which in turn has implications for discussions about the impairment/disability divide. Rather than ignoring impairment (social model) or suggesting that impairment is socially constructed, instead I will suggest that when considering psycho-emotional disablism, it is necessary to take account of impairment as part of the analysis of disablism. Bodies do matter; impaired bodies are not all considered equally in the cultural psyche. Therefore it could be predicted that prejudice (which leads to psycho-disablism) is mediated by perceived impairment – that psycho-emotional disablism can take different forms depending on what is known/visible to the other (non) disabled person.