The impact of psycho-emotional disablism on disabled children (paper, 2003)

Reeve, D. (2003) ‘The impact of psycho-emotional disablism on disabled children’, paper presented at ‘I Feel: I Think’, Warwick University, 13-14 November.

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.

Drawing on the stories of people with physical impairments reflecting on their childhood experiences of disability, this paper will explore the different manifestations of the psycho-emotional dimensions of disability, illustrating the pervasive and long-lasting effects on the self-esteem and emotional well-being of these disabled children. I will also discuss the link between the experience of psycho-emotional disablism and issues of identity in both childhood and adulthood.

I suggest that the psycho-emotional dimensions of disability can be viewed as a form of emotional abuse because the end result is the same – disabled children who feel that they are worthless, unlovable and inadequate. In extreme cases this leaves disabled children more susceptible to physical and sexual abuse because the negative social values placed on children with impairments creates a situation in which abusers can believe that it is alright to abuse a child who is ‘worthless’ and the child accepts the abuse because they believe they are ‘defective’. Therefore it is imperative that any discussion about the emotional and psychological well-being of disabled children includes reference to the psycho-emotional dimensions of disability.

The agents of psycho-emotional disablism can be strangers, professionals, family or friends – often through well-intentioned actions which are genuinely meant to be helpful, but which end up inadvertently disempowering the disabled child. I will discuss the list of ‘Human Rights of Children with Disabilities’ which has been proposed by the disabled US psychotherapist Rhoda Olkin, and show how working within this framework would enable disabled children to develop a more positive sense of self and identity, to better resist the negative stereotypes and social expectations about disability that permeate society.