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.