‘Am I a real disabled person or someone with a dodgy arm? (paper, 2006)

Reeve, D. (2006) ‘‘Am I a real disabled person or someone with a dodgy arm?’: A discussion of psycho-emotional disablism and its contribution to identity constructions’, paper presented at Disability Studies: Research and Learning, Lancaster University, 18-20 September.


One of the most important contributions to self-identity arises from social interaction with others – how we see ourselves is affected by how others perceive and react to us. Therefore the ways in which people with impairments see themselves as disabled or not (whatever that may mean), is affected by interactions with other people, both disabled and non-disabled. The psycho-emotional dimensions of disability – a form of social oppression which operates along emotional pathways – are most evident within interpersonal interactions and so make an important contribution to the self-identity of disabled people.

Drawing on an analysis of the experiential accounts of people with physical impairments talking about their disability experiences, this paper will explore the different ways in which the experience of psycho-emotional disablism affects self-identity as ‘disabled’ or not. Interview data was collected using the free-association narrative interview method in which fractures that occur within the narrative – inconsistencies, contradictions, irrationality – are taken to be as illuminating as linear narratives.

I will discuss the experience of internalised oppression and prejudiced attitudes – examples of psycho-emotional disablism – and show the impact this had on a participant’s self-identity, as well as their emotional well-being. Particular problems arise when self-identity conflicts with how others perceive that person and I will illustrate the ontological stress that this causes together with the strategies people devised to deal with it.

Whilst disablism within relationships between disabled and non-disabled people has been well-documented, I will highlight the significance of disablism caused by the attitudes and behaviours of disabled people towards each other. This will be illustrated through a discussion of perceived hierarchies of impairment and the undermining effect that these can have on how one self-defines as disabled or not.

This discussion of the interactions between self-identity and the psycho-emotional dimensions of disability will also reveal the complex nature of this form of social oppression and the manner in which it is intertwined with elements of structural disability, impairment effects and psycho-emotional dimensions of impairment, as well as other facets of social identity such as gender and age.

It will become clear that a consideration of the psycho-emotional dimensions of disability need to be included in any discussions about the ‘disabled identity’ if a more complete understanding of the disability experience is to be achieved.

To this end I will draw on the work of the post-structuralist feminist Braidotti to show how her concept of a ‘nomadic’ subject (1994, 2002) provides 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.