Category Archives: Papers

Psycho-emotional disablism in the lives of people experiencing mental distress (paper, 2011)

Reeve, D. (2011) ‘Psycho-emotional disablism in the lives of people experiencing mental distress’, paper presented at Disability or Distress symposium, Lancaster University, 15-16 November.


This paper will explore what the concept of psycho-emotional disablism can bring to discussions about the relevance (or not) that the social model of disability has for those people who experience mental distress. Questions to be considered will include:

  • Does the recognition of disablism in both its structural and psycho-emotional forms make the traditional ‘social model of disability’ more relevant to people experiencing mental distress?
  • How does psycho-emotional disablism help understandings of the impact of prejudice and hate crime, both of which have higher rates of occurrence for people experiencing mental distress than other groups of disabled people?
  • How might psycho-emotional disablism intertwine with experiences of mental distress?
  • What relevance might this have for debates to date about psycho-emotional disablism and impairment/impairment effects more generally within disability studies?

This work-in-progress will show the potential benefits to be gained by using a more nuanced definition of disablism which explicitly includes forms of oppression that operate at both the public and private level. This discussion will also contribute to ongoing theoretical debates about the complex and blurred relationship(s) between disablism and impairment within disability studies which are exemplified by the experiences of people living with mental distress.


This seminar paper was developed into Reeve, D. (2015) ‘Psycho-emotional disablism in the lives of people experiencing mental distress’, in H. Spandler, J. Anderson and B. Sapey (eds) Madness, Distress and the Politics of Disablement, Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 99-112.

Disablist hate crime and psycho-emotional disablism: Interconnections and insights (paper, 2010)

Reeve, D. (2010) ‘Disablist hate crime and psycho-emotional disablism: Interconnections and insights’, paper presented at 5th Biennial Disability Studies Conference, Lancaster University, 7-9 September.


Disability hate crime is slowly starting to be recognised as a reality for many disabled people (Sin et al, 2009; Quarmby, 2008) but there are recognized problems with the UK justice system which mean that hostility towards disabled people is often labelled as anti-social behaviour rather than hate crime. The manner in which experiences of disability hate crime are ‘downgraded’ adds further injury to these experiences of systematic violence which are one of the five faces of oppression which minority groups such as disabled people experience (Young, 1990).

Although there are severe incidents of disability hate crime which make the national headlines, it is the daily grind of low-level incidents such as name-calling which affect more disabled people. These examples of psycho-emotional disablism which undermine emotional well-being and self-esteem are cumulative and can be affected by previous experiences of psycho-emotional disablism including internalised oppression. Quarmby (2008) offers a useful discussion of how entrenched disablism within our culture and society, enacted through language and prejudice, means that disability hate crime can exist without being recognised by such, by both victim, perpetrator and others.

In this paper I will present some exploratory ideas about how the concept of psycho-emotional disablism can contribute to theoretical understandings of disability hate crime by considering the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between psycho-emotional disablism and disability hate crime?
  • How might past/present experiences of psycho-emotional disablism impact on a person’s ‘risk’ of being a victim of disability hate crime and the consequential ‘hurt’ that the hate crime causes?
  • How might an understanding of psycho-emotional disablism affect the kinds of support offered to disabled people who experience disability hate crime?
  • What can recent psychoanalytic approaches to the disabled subject (Goodley, forthcoming) contribute to understanding why disability hate crime happens and the (lack of) institutional/societal responses to these crimes?

Although there is a recent body of research which is documenting the experiences of disability hate crime, there is relatively little theoretical disability studies analysis of disability hate crime (although see for example Sherry (2000; 2003; 2010)). In the light of a growing need to address the realities of disability hate crime in the UK, it is hoped that this paper will kindle academic discussions akin to those existing in the related fields of race, religion, sexual orientation and transgender hate crime.

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.

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.

Psycho-emotional disablism: Implications for clinical psychology (paper, 2010)

Reeve, D. (2010) ‘Psycho-emotional disablism: Implications for clinical psychology’, paper presented at Clinical Psychology seminar, Lancaster University, 1 March.

Paper given to a group of clinical psychology students at Lancaster University.

Enabling or disabling practice?: Psycho-emotional disablism and acts of (mis)recognition within professional relationships with disabled people (paper, 2009)

Reeve, D. (2009) ‘Enabling or disabling practice?: Psycho-emotional disablism and acts of (mis)recognition within professional relationships with disabled people’, paper presented at 10th Nordic Network on Disability Research, Nyborg, Denmark, 2-4 April.


For many disabled people, the effects of impairment mean that health and welfare professionals are involved in their lives on a regular basis. Existing literature drawing on the experiences of disabled people has illustrated the extent to which these professional-disabled people relationships, with their inherently unequal power balance, can be characterised by behaviour which is dismissive, patronising and prejudiced. This paper will discuss examples of psycho-emotional disablism – a form of social oppression which operates along emotional pathways – which were revealed through an analysis of the experiential accounts of people with physical impairments talking about their relationships with a range of professionals.

The inherent power imbalance between professional and disabled client means that psycho-emotional disablism is always potentially in the background. The prevalence of negative images and prejudice about disability within society can influence professional practice; for example a pregnant disabled woman may be offered a termination rather than support because of the assumptions that disabled people are dependent and therefore not able to care for others. I draw on my research data to provide other examples of professional practice which reveal psycho-emotional disablism in operation and show the emotional and practical implications this had for the disabled person. I illustrate the way in which this source of psycho-emotional disablism can also continue to exert an influence on someone’s emotional well-being long after the professional relationship has ended. Examples are also provided of acts of resistance within these relationships which restored a degree of control and power to the disabled person.

I show how important it is that professionals are aware of someone’s ‘disability history’ in order to realise how the long-lasting effects of psycho-emotional disablism can disrupt subsequent relationships with professionals, even when no active disablism is present. Thus a well-meaning professional may interpret the reaction of a disabled person as pathological when in fact it is the result of past experiences of being patronised or devalued.

However there were also examples in my research of good professional practice and I discuss how relatively small actions can have a huge positive impact on the emotional well-being of the disabled person being supported.

Finally I show how better training of professionals to include an awareness of psycho-emotional disablism would mean that they themselves don’t become unwitting oppressors in the relationships with their clients. It is vital that professionals in the health and welfare fields are aware of psycho-emotional disablism and how it can impact on self-esteem and self-worth, if they are to work effectively with disabled people. In addition I reveal how it is possible to reduce/remove this aspect of disablism through attitudinal/behavioural changes which don’t need to cost money, an important consideration in the light of the current crisis in the UK in funding of health and social care services.

‘Sick or disabled?’: A discussion of the interaction between chronic illness and psycho-emotional disablism (paper, 2009)

Reeve, D. (2009) ‘‘Sick or disabled?’: A discussion of the interaction between chronic illness and psycho-emotional disablism’, paper presented at Disability and Chronic Illness Workshop, University of the West of England, 30 January.


Working from within a disability studies perspective, this paper uses the extended social relational definition of disablism (rather than disability) whereby:

‘Disablism is a form of social oppression involving the social imposition of restrictions of activity on people with impairments and the socially engendered undermining of their psycho-emotional well-being.’ (Thomas, 2007: 73)

Like the social model of disability traditionally used within disability studies, this definition clearly recognises disabling barriers which operate at the structural/material level, affecting what people can do. However, in addition to the more usual public barriers faced by people with impairments, this definition also explicitly recognises barriers which operate at the psycho-emotional (personal) level. Thus someone may be prevented from doing something because of a flight of stairs (structural disablism) or because of the attitudes/stares of others (psycho-emotional disablism).

Disability studies has been criticised for failing to take account of the lived experience of impairment and in particular, for failing to represent adequately the experiences of people living with chronic illness. Similarly, there have been criticisms of medical sociology for neglecting the effects of disablism when discussing the lived experience of people with chronic illness.

In this paper I will discuss some of the issues which arise when considering the potential role of psycho-emotional disablism in the lives of people with chronic illness. I will draw on the narratives of two women with MS and a man with RSD who took part in my doctoral research, to show the complexity of their lived experiences of chronic illness and psycho-emotional disablism.

I show how psycho-emotional disablism is revealed within their accounts of dealing with health professionals and other people, and how it is exposed by the problematic relationships they have with themselves (internalised oppression) as they move between different subject positions such as being disabled, sick or well. In addition psycho-emotional disablism can happen when one is forced to occupy a particular position by others, for example when applying for disability benefits.

However one cannot simply analyse these examples through the lens of disablism alone – it is also necessary to take account of impairment and impairment effects as well as other facets of identity. This is particularly true in the case of chronic illness such as MS with unpredictable ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days; what are the consequences of being ‘disabled’ one day, but ‘able’ the next? I also show how chronic illness can be exacerbated by the experience of psycho-emotional disablism as well as impacting on how people can resist this ‘inner’ dimension of oppression.

Importantly, although someone might not see themselves as disabled, as the examples I discuss show, this does not mean that psycho-emotional disablism will also be absent from the lives of people with chronic illness.

Therefore, when looking at concepts of chronic illness, it is also necessary to take account of the concept of psycho-emotional disablism and vice versa – they do not exist in isolation but interact with each other in a complex manner.

Homo sacer, states of exception and zones of indistinction: What can the work of Agamben offer disability studies? (paper, 2008)

Reeve, D. (2008) ‘Homo sacer, states of exception and zones of indistinction: What can the work of Agamben offer disability studies?’, paper presented at 4th Biennial Disability Studies Conference, Lancaster University, 2-4 September.


The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, as part of his analysis of contemporary Western politics (Agamben, 1998), describes how the figure of homo sacer can be considered to be an outlaw or bandit; someone who is not simply outside the law and indifferent to it, but who has instead been abandoned by the law. Whereas Foucauldian approaches have been useful in understanding the ways in which technologies of power differentiate the abnormal from the normal, Agamben instead focuses on how the suspension of law (states of exception) can create zones of indistinction where homo sacer can be found. One good example of a zone of indistinction is that of Camp Delta set up to hold US ‘detainees’ (rather than ‘prisoners’) who are at the mercy of presidential decrees and the will of military personnel. The camp itself occupies an indistinct spatial zone because of its location in Guantánamo Bay – it is on Cuban soil, but outside the realm of Cuban law.

In this paper I will draw on narratives of disability experiences generated as part of my PhD to present some ideas about how these concepts of homo sacer and zones of indistinction can be used to understand some contemporary experiences of structural and psycho-emotional disablism.

Structural dimensions of disablism affect what disabled people can do; examples include barriers in the built environment or lack of information in accessible formats. I will show how flawed implementations of the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK lead to spatial zones of indistinction where disabled people find themselves (legally) both included and excluded at the same time. This is because of the unspecifiable ‘reasonable adjustments’ term in the Act which means that disabled people are at the ‘mercy’ of planners and architects as to how these adjustments are implemented. Although there are examples of excellent inclusive design, this is not guaranteed; so whilst a separate entrance for wheelchair users restores independence, it does not necessarily restore the disabled person’s self-esteem and dignity.

Finally I introduce the new concept of ‘psychic’ zones of indistinction to examine some examples of psycho-emotional disablism experienced by people with visible impairments. Within most parts of society it is considered rude to stare or call people names; however for many people with visible impairments this is a daily occurrence and can feel invalidating and humiliating. I suggest that these psychic zones of indistinction are created by the suspension of behavioural norms or ‘internal’ laws’. In addition, the disabled person is never certain of how the next stranger will react to them which reflects the way in which homo sacer is always ‘at the mercy of his fellow men’.

The red wedding dress and other stories: Intersections of psycho-emotional disablism, impairment effects and gender (paper, 2008)

Reeve, D. (2008) ‘The red wedding dress and other stories: Intersections of psycho-emotional disablism, impairment effects and gender’, paper presented at Subjectivity: International Conference, Cardiff University, 27-29 June.


This paper draws on my PhD which explores the nature of psycho-emotional disablism – a form of social oppression which operates along emotional pathways – and the ways in which this affects the different ways that people with impairments identify (or not) as disabled.

I will discuss the experience of internalised oppression and prejudiced attitudes – examples of psycho-emotional disablism – and show the impact this had on one disabled woman’s subjectivity, as well as her emotional well-being. Although at times the reactions of others left her feeling vulnerable and exposed, she also gave examples of where she had created her own alternate subjectivities. These stories also revealed how psycho-emotional disablism was intertwined with impairment effects, structural disablism (e.g. environmental barriers) and other factors such as gender and age.

Finally I will briefly discuss these stories in the light of Braidotti’s concept of a ‘nomadic’ subject (1994, 2002) suggesting that this could provide a useful metaphor for examining the myriad ways in which people with impairments see themselves as ‘disabled’ or not, and how this is highly context dependent.

Homo sacer and zones of exception: Metaphors for the contemporary experience of disablism? (paper, 2007)

Reeve, D. (2007) ‘Homo sacer and zones of exception: Metaphors for the contemporary experience of disablism?’, paper presented at Disability, Discourse and Community Psychology: The 1st Seminar, Research Institute of Health and Social Change (RIHSC), Manchester Metropolitan University, 6 July.

Longer version of the paper presented at the NNDR conference earlier in the year.

I turned up at this conference and one of the speakers had failed to arrive – so I was asked if I could present something. Luckily I had the NNDR slides on a USB stick in my bag, and after 15 minutes of adding in some extra material and some kind soul printing out a copy of the original presentation notes for me, I gave an impromptu presentation!