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Symbolic violence and the invisibility of disability

Leslie Swartz
Xanthe Hunt
Brian Watermeyer
Mark Carew
Stine Hellum Braathen
Poul Rohleder


Disability as a social justice issue is not part of mainstream talk. Approximately 15% of the world’s population has a disability, and yet persons with disabilities are systematically subjected to this sort of exclusion. If considered in terms of social power, then persons with disabilities are the largest single minority group. Amongst minorities, exclusion from the social and representational order is a forceful form of symbolic violence. Persons with disabilities are systematically subjected to this sort of exclusion. In the public domain, persons with disabilities are either not represented at all, or misrepresented. The misrepresentation of persons with disabilities takes a host of cultural forms. This paper explores a few examples of these forms, as they can be considered examples of symbolic violence. We explore how negative social value may be internalised, and how this constitutes a form of symbolic violence experienced by persons with disabilities. We argue that persons with disabilities must constantly act against subtle and blatant acts of symbolic violence – including exclusion – and that the necessity of constant resistance characterises the lives of disabled persons. We argue that it is necessary not only to recognise the detrimental effects of having to confront the symbolic violence of a society which is structured for the benefit of those with typical embodiment, but also to frame this social injustice as something which leads to very real and very dangerous exclusions.

Keywords: symbolic violence, disability, sexuality, representation, exclusion