Beyond the social model: The experience of psycho-emotional disablism (paper, 2010)

Reeve, D. (2010) ‘Beyond the social model: The experience of psycho-emotional disablism’, paper presented at RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, Royal Geographical Society, London, 1-3 September.


This paper will discuss the experience of psycho-emotional disablism, which is a neglected dimension of disablism often relegated to the realm of ‘personal trouble’ rather than ‘political issue’ by typical social model analyses of disability.

One way of rectifying this omission is to use an extended social relational definition of disablism (Thomas, 2007). This framework explicitly recognises the social oppression experienced by people with impairments which operates at both the public and personal levels, affecting what people can do (structural disablism) as well as who they can be (psycho-emotional disablism).

Structural disablism includes the barriers typically associated with the social model such as inaccessible environments and discrimination in employment. Psycho-emotional disablism is a form of social oppression which undermines emotional well-being, self-worth and self-esteem such as dealing with prejudicial comments as well as internalized oppression.

Both structural and psycho-emotional disablism can exclude people with impairments – a wheelchair user can be excluded by the reactions of others e.g. the ‘Does he take sugar?’ response from strangers as well as by a flight of steps at the front of a building. Therefore, any sociological understanding of the lived experience of disablism has to take account of social oppression that operates at both the public and personal levels, structural disablism and psycho-emotional disablism.

Drawing on accounts of people with physical impairments I will discuss the complex nature of (in)direct psycho-emotional disablism and reveal how it is intertwined with structural disablism, impairment effects, time, place, space and other facets of someone’s identity.