Lapper said she was “completely overwhelmed” as she accepted the honour from the University of Brighton to a standing ovation at a ceremony held at the Brighton Dome on Friday.
Lapper, who graduated in 1993 with a first-class honours degree in fine art from the university, said: “I never thought or imagined in all these years that I would be back here to receive this amazing honour.”
She said she had promised herself she would not become emotional but there were tears as she praised those who had helped her in her career, including university staff, from caretakers to lecturers.
Lapper said: “The fact that I came away with a first-class degree still blows my mind. But I never felt like I was the only disabled student, although I was. I was able to do everything everyone else did.”
She is also well known after posing for Marc Quinn for the sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant, which appeared on the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Lapper is known around the world for her work but said her son Parys, who was in the audience, is “my greatest piece of art work and creation”.
Presenting the award, Professor Bruce Brown, pro vice-chancellor (research), described the artist as a “Titan of the human spirit” and a “force for everything that is good”.
He said: “Alison’s creative intelligence has served to challenge and change our notions of physical beauty, normality, disability and sexuality.”
Despite her significant challenges, he said, academics at the then Brighton School of Art recognised her talent and said she “removed every obstacle standing in the way of her ambition to become an independent fine artist – if not a famous one”.
Born without arms and with shortened legs, Lapper uses photography, digital imaging and painting to question physical normality and beauty. A member of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World, she has used her body as subject matter for artworks.
In one she put herself into the image of the world’s best-known symbol of femininity, the Venus de Milo.