Uncomfortable Bedfellows? Critical Disability Studies and Psychoanalysis

Dr. Joe Holloway makes a case for bringing the traditionally differentiated frameworks of psychoanalysis and critical disability studies into dialogue with each-other. 

Despite the excellent research from a range of scholars working at the intersection of critical disability studies and psychoanalysis, (Goodley, 2011; Simpson et al. 2013; Simpson and Thomas, 2014) the two are often thought incompatible. There is certainly an awkward history and some important methodological difficulties to square. This essay hopes to demonstrate why more scholars should consider combining the two approaches and how this might be achieved. In my research I have used psychoanalysis, Foucauldian historicization, and phenomenology to inform a critical disability studies framework. Through this it has become apparent that, far from contradictory, bringing the approaches together enables a form of methodological synergy far above what I would have achieved if I had used either on their own.

Perceived Incompatibilities

Part of the perceived compatibility problem lies in the historical association between psychoanalysis and institutionalisation. Whilst a relatively young arm of medical history, psychoanalysis was a key player in the attempted erasure of disabled lives through consigning people to asylums and other such institutions. Understandably, many disabled activists and scholars struggle to see past this association.

The professed incompatibility between the approaches is also illustrated through the way the medical model of disability – employed in psychoanalysis – is seen to prioritise ‘cure’ over the experience of the disabled individual. The medical model used by medical practitioners understands not-normal anatomy as a ‘problem’ that requires medical intervention. When this medical model is applied to disabled minds (via psychoanalysis) those with psychic distress are understood as ‘sick’ and in need of ‘treatment’. We thus see an attempt to normalise, and erase, ‘socially troubling’ aspects of disabled people’s psyches. This could be said to continue institutionalisation, only without the asylum.

The latter argument draws on Eli Clare’s understanding of ‘cure’ as a “kind of restoration” (2017, 14) – a problematic return to a ‘normal’ state. This ‘normal state’, Clare writes, “doesn’t originate from my visceral history. Rather it arises from an imagination of what I should be like” (14). The emphasis on an imagined ‘normality’ affects, for example, those diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD): the diagnosed ‘problem’ (to be intervened in) is also a substantial part of that person. In conversation with me one participant likened mandatory therapy sessions to an “attack on coping mechanisms”.[1] Their constructive engagement with the world was targeted as a focus of treatment.

Psychoanalysis and critical disability studies seem to have fundamentally different scopes. Broadly speaking, psychoanalysis takes individuals as their object of study, and extrapolates from this to produce universalised generalisations. In contrast, a central tenet of critical disability studies is that disability is at least a partially social phenomenon. This phenomenon is then applied to the individuals with impairment and the methodological flow is reversed. Instead of starting with the individual and extrapolating outwards, the social/cultural sphere is interrogated, and then applied to the individual.

Fabregas, Hansuan. 2020. “Integration. Special Needs. Diversity.” JPG. Pixabay. May 20, 2020. https://pixabay.com/images/id-5192458/.

Moving Beyond the Contradictions

These incompatibilities are by no means insurmountable, however, and there is a surprising amount of overlap between psychoanalysis and critical disability studies. Both have begun to focus on the relation between the individual and the social/cultural sphere. In fact, few critical disability studies scholars today maintain a purely social model of disability. The Ecological Enactive model developed by Juan Toro and others (2020) is a recent example. It responds to a major criticism of the social model of disability: that it neglects non-social aspects of the disabled experience, such as chronic pain, relegating these aspects to medically driven interpretations. Correspondingly, psychoanalysis has been usefully applied to objects beyond the discrete individual. Economic and ecological models, mathematical paradigms, and international development have all recently drawn the psychoanalyst’s attention (Tavlin, 2015; Shaw and Bonnett, 2016; Wegener 2016; Kapoor, 2020).

A productive collaboration

The kind of intersection that I believe is most productive is when psychoanalytic models help explain what it is about disability that non-disabled people find Othering and why. As argued by Dan Goodley, critical disability studies is at its best when it focuses on how “non-disabled people and disablist culture symbolise, characterise, construct, gaze at, project, split off, react, repress and direct images of impairment and disability” (Goodley, 2011, 716).

A useful means of engaging with the intersection can be arrived at through considering the Kleinian idea of projective identification (Klein, 1946). Melanie Klein posited that the developing infant internalises traits deemed positive, and expels outwards those deemed harmful, protecting its psyche from negative associations. I believe that this mechanism – of internalising and expelling – underpins much ableism; the disabled figure is the site where harmful knowledge about the non-disabled self is cathartically purged.

Through paying attention to this mechanism, psychoanalysis can usefully interrogate non-disabled responses to disability, exposing and challenging the everyday ableism bound up in these perceptions. Non-disabled depictions of disability often resemble what non-disabled people fear about themselves. To the non-disabled, disability facilitates a reminder of the (repressed) knowledge that the mind is neither separate from nor immune to the influence of the body. We cannot will away sickness, and if we are fortunate enough, we will all eventually age and die. For the non-disabled, disability is a reminder that they are, in the words of Margrit Shildrick, “Temporarily Able Bodied” (Shildrick, 2015, 13). In order that the non-disabled self can avoid this reminder and repress this knowledge, such associations of mortality and vulnerability are instead projected (in the Kleinian sense) onto the spectre of disability.

The use of the psychoanalytic concept of projective identification is thus a critically useful starting point for interrogating non-disabled portraits of disability. In my research, I draw on non-disabled depictions of fictional and real-life conjoined twins in newspaper advertisements, biographies, medical reports, and legal transcripts to discover the consistent undercurrent of anxiety projected onto these conjoined people. Such concerns vary according to the periods and audiences, but broadly speaking they betray fears that (a) there is no meaningful distinction between those deemed ‘normal’ and those not; or (b) that non-disabled ‘privacy’ is under threat; or (c) that the conservative Western understandings of ‘individuality’ and ‘agency’ are a fiction and that we are all globally and complexly interconnected (Holloway, 2023; Holloway, forthcoming). Instead of becoming vulnerable to the particular foibles associated with each approach, by using both as alternative lenses, (at the risk of mixing metaphors) I cover the blind spots of each.

It is with this understanding in mind that I warmly encourage others to consider using psychoanalysis to inform their critical disability studies framework. If you are a scholar that already does this, or if you are interested in doing so then please contact me on Twitter as I am setting up a network for the intersection of these two disciplines.

[1] Georgina Holloway, text message to author, June 15, 2020.

About the author

Dr. Joe Holloway has recently (January 2023) received his doctorate from the University of Exeter in Literary Studies specialising in disability studies. He teaches at the University of Exeter and is the Book Reviews Editor for Literature and History (SAGE). He can be found on Twitter @EngTwiterature.


Campbell, Fiona. 2018. “Legislating Disability: Negative Ontologies and the Government of Legal Identities.” Foucault and the Government of Disability: Enlarged and Revised 10th Anniversary Edition, edited by Shelley Tremain, 108-30. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Clare, Eli. 2017. Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Fabregas, Hansuan. 2020. “Integration. Special Needs. Diversity.” JPG. Pixabay. May 20, 2020. https://pixabay.com/images/id-5192458/.

Goodley, Dan. 2011. “Social Psychoanalytic Disability Studies.” Disability and Society, 26, no. 6: 715-28.

Holloway, Joseph. 2023. “Self, Self & Other: Conjoinment and Singleton Identity in Literature and Medicine 1830-Present.” PhD diss., University of Exeter.

Holloway, Joseph. Forthcoming. “Conjoined Inequalities in Sarah Crossan’s One.Healthcare in Children’s Literature, edited by Naomi Lesley and Sarah Layzell. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

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Shaw, Wendy, and Alastair Bonnett. 2016. “Environmental Crisis, Narcissism and the Work of Grief.” Cultural Geographies, 23, no. 4: 565-79.

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Toro, Juan, Julian Kiverstein, and Erik Rietveld. 2020. “The Ecological-Enactive Model of Disability: Why Disability Does Not Entail Pathological Embodiment.” Frontiers in Psychology, 11, no. 1162: 1-15.

Wegener, Mai. 2016. Psychoanalysis: Topological Perspectives: New Conceptions of Geometry and Space in Freud and Lacan. Bielefeld: Transcript.

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