Juggling Identities: Elite Female Athletes' Negotiation of Identities in Disability Sport

  • Emma Seal

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The focus of this thesis is the negotiation of identities by elite-level female athletes involved in disability sport. Recently, the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Paralympic games have showcased the contemporary nature of disability sport and ostensibly suggest a growth in public interest within this field. However, there has been limited research to date conducted into the experiences of physically impaired, female athletes at the elite level of disability sport. Moreover, the existing literature fails to address the negotiation of identities within the interplay of gender, ‘disability’, body and wider socio-cultural influences. Inspired by this dearth of literature and the desire to contribute to disability sport theorisation, my research questions how elite female athletes negotiate their identities across contexts and the wider social, cultural and political values that influence this process. I address their experiences in relation to these factors alongside the intersection of gender and disability. I have explored the women’s experiences by utilising symbolic interactionism in combination with a social-relational conceptualisation of disability. This theoretical approach recognises the women’s bodies as a ‘fleshy presence’ in their interactional encounters and brings ‘impairment’ back into the theorisation of disability (Waskul and Vannini 2006). This approach allows me to interrogate the women’s unique realities in relation to wider socio-cultural values, and the ‘micro relations’ of their day-to-day lives. A life history perspective guides the methodological framework, which foregrounds and prioritises the seven elite female athletes’ subjective experiences in relation to the socio-historical context.The narratives offer a powerful and original insight into the complexity of disability, whilst addressing the multiple and fluid nature of the participants’ identities. This advances the use of the social-relational model and fosters new understandings of the social relations underpinning the effects of impairment. I have developed the concept of ‘reverse stigma’ and have highlighted the need to disrupt the social processes that create stigmatic physicality, whilst demonstrating how impairment is perceived in different social contexts. My research has provided an original contribution by generating an in-depth picture of how the women experience their lives, how they see themselves as disabled (or not) and the wider intersecting forces that shape and influence their realities. This is significant for highlighting the way disability and disabled female athletes are perceived in Western society.
Date of Award20 May 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorJill Porter (Supervisor) & Emma Rich (Supervisor)


  • Disability
  • Sport
  • Gender
  • Identities
  • Symbolic Interactionism
  • Life History

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