‘Encounters with Strangers’: Psycho-emotional dimensions of disability in everyday life (paper, 2003)

Reeve, D. (2003) ”Encounters with Strangers’: Psycho-emotional dimensions of disability in everyday life’, paper presented at Disability Studies: Theory, Policy and Practice, Lancaster University, 4-6 September.

Abstract

Whether it be the comment from a thoughtless stranger, the attitude of a professional, or the negative value accorded to disabled people within society, living in a disabling society can seriously undermine the emotional well-being of people with impairments. These examples of the psycho-emotional dimensions of disability are caused by social processes and practices which operate along emotional pathways, leaving many disabled people feeling worthless, rejected and ashamed.

This paper explores the psycho-emotional dimensions of disability revealed in the experiential accounts of people with acquired physical impairments talking about their ‘encounters with strangers’. Interviews were carried using the free-association narrative interview method in which both the participant and researcher are seen as defended subjects. This method utilises data arising from the stories that are recounted, the manner of their telling, as well as what is not said.

In addition to providing a flavour of the different forms that psycho-emotional disablism can take, the emotional and practical consequences of this particular dimension of disability on the daily life of two disabled people will be described. I will discuss how these participants engage in various forms of emotion work to counteract the prejudicial behaviour of others, in extreme cases deliberately adopting stereotypical disabled roles in order to ‘get by’ in a disabling world. These accounts of ‘encounters with strangers’ show that any discussion of the psycho-emotional dimensions of disability needs to take account of the different emotional strategies disabled people use to counteract these forms of social oppression which operate at the ‘personal’ rather than ‘public’ level.