Disability and depathologisation are not metaphors

Professor Dan Goodley reflects on the recent Northern Network of the Medical Humanities Congress and the necessity to embrace disability as a driving subject of inquiry. 

I had the pleasure, this week, to attend the Northern Network of Medical Humanities Congress 2023 (#NNMHR2023). It was my first time at a medical humanities conference. I loved the mix of disciplines, representation of explicitly political ambitions and the presence of those working inside and outside of universities.

The congress also gave me a chance to share plans associated with our new Wellcome Discretionary Award Disability Matters and to learn from colleagues engaging with what has been termed the ‘critical turn’ in medical humanities (check out Viney, Callard and Woods, 2015). One community of scholars I encountered was the Black Health and the Humanities Network who are working with the decolonisation of medical humanities and the generation of anti-colonial practice. Their brilliantly disruptive and provocative panel unpacking the tenets, assumptions and challenges of anti-colonial praxis resonated with me; especially work in critical disability studies.

Indeed, Disability Matters aspires to transform health research scholarship, methods and environments. Established fields such as medicine, medical humanities, health psychology, medical sociology, population and public health studies conventionally understand disability as a problem requiring a solution. Research emerging from these fields renders disability as an object of inquiry. This is true even within everyday life where disability is understood as an unfortunate happenstance requiring remedy. Disability Matters proposes a paradigm shift: rather than conceiving of disability as the passive object of inquiry, we understand disability as the driving active subject of inquiry.

To posit disability as a driving subject in the (critical) medical humanities demands institutional, cultural, epistemological and methodological transformation. And this is where we can learn from our anti-colonial scholars and activists. To challenge structural racism and endemic white privilege in our institutions we are urged to disrupt, contest and transform our universities. A number of the panel members of the Black Health and Humanities Network Project made reference to the work of the Indigenous and Critical Race Scholar Eve Tuck. During the panel I was reminded of Tuck and Yang’s well-known paper that calls for a decolonial move from metaphor to praxis:

‘When we write about decolonization, we are not offering it as a metaphor; it is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression. Decolonization is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. Decolonization doesn’t have a synonym’ (Tuck and Yang, 2012: 2).

Photograph of a green field, pylons, and a blue sky with a few clouds receding into the distance.
AT: Photograph of a green field, pylons, and a blue sky with clouds receding into the distance.

One might understand one of the main demands of critical disability studies as depathologisation: to contest pathological conceptions of disability that are rife in all of our disciplinary domains. But the work does not stop there. In order to depathologise we have to move from metaphor to praxis. One aspect of this relates to unsettling disability’s ‘absent presence’ in the medical humanities (Titchkosky, 2011). One will find disability everywhere in the medical humanities. It is very much present but oftentimes only as a metaphor for failure. Disability oftentimes turns up in the academy: but as a dead metaphor (Titchkosky, 2015). Meanwhile, disabled researchers, critical disability studies theory and disability politics are often absent from mainstream theorisation in the medical humanities. Historically, disability has not been invited into medical humanities as scholarly authority.

#NNMHR2023 was so refreshing, exciting and energising precisely because it invited moments of intersectional engagement between Black and Disability Studies and their decolonising and depathologising practices. It is precisely in these intersectional changes that we might find change and transformation. But, we should also keep in mind that decolonisation and depathologisation should never be reduced to metaphor: they demand so much more than that.


About the author

Dan Goodley is Professor of Disability Studies and Education, University of Sheffield and co-director of iHuman. More details of Dan’s research and scholarship can be found here. He can also be found on Twitter @DanGoodley


Titchkosky, T. (2011) The Question of Access. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Titchkosky, T. (2015). Life with Dead Metaphors: Impairment Rhetoric in Social Justice Praxis. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 9(1), 1-18. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/577405.

Tuck E and Yang K W (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1):1–40

Viney, W., Callard, F. and Woods, A. (2015) ‘Critical medical humanities: embracing entanglement, taking risks’, Medical humanities, 41(1), pp. 2–7. doi:10.1136/medhum-2015-010692.


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