Ableism and disability studies: The myth of the reliable and contained body (paper, 2010)

Reeve, D. (2010) ‘Ableism and disability studies: The myth of the reliable and contained body’, paper presented at Critical Disability Studies Conference: Theorizing Normalcy and the Mundane, Manchester Metropolitan University, 12-13 May.


Disability studies literature has focused on the production of disablism, the practices and assumptions which underpin the social oppression of people with impairments. In contrast, ableism, refers to the privileging of able-bodiedness and is created by a ‘network of beliefs, processes and practices that produce a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, as the species-typical, and, therefore, as essential and fully human’ (Campbell, 2005: 127). As well as contributing to the valuing of a body which moves, thinks, speaks, sees and hears ‘normally’, able-bodiedness also privileges a body that is reliable and contained.

In some respects, disability studies analyses of disablism have been unduly influenced by these ableist assumptions, concentrating on the ‘paradigmatic person with a disability [who] is healthy disabled and permanently and predictably impaired’ (Wendell, 2001:21). This leaves the so-called ‘unhealthy disabled’, those with chronic illness, underrepresented in accounts of experiences of disablism. Related to the ideal of the reliable body, is the importance that bodies are also contained; one of the markers of adulthood, as opposed to childhood, is that bowel and bladder are controlled. However incontinence is a common impairment effect for many disabled adults and fear of an ‘accident’ can keep someone isolated at home as effectively as any other disabling barrier.

This paper will explore the challenges which unreliable and leaky bodies represent for the individual as well as for disability studies, supporting the argument that the experience of (dis)ableism is crucially interconnected with impairment and impairment effects.