Depathologising the curriculum

Depathologisation feels like a concept that we might consider alongside and in alliance with decolonisation.

Icelandic pepsi poster
Icelandic pepsi poster

Depathologising the curriculum
Dan Goodley and Antonios Ktenidis
iHuman and School of Education, University of Sheffield

12th May 2023

We have been at the Nordic Network for Disability Research Conference 2023 this week in Iceland. Alongside enjoying the geysers, surveying the waterfalls and admiring the Icelandic economy’s in-built ability to completely empty our bank accounts, we have had the opportunity to think about some of the contributions of the conference. As we sat through some fascinating talks and presentations we reflecting on an idea; depathologising the curriculum.

This is something that colleagues in iHuman have been thinking through for a while now.

Depathologisation feels like a concept that we might consider alongside and in alliance with decolonisation. Depathologisation is to critical disability studies what decolonisation is to postcolonial studies. A word of caution: we are not implying that decolonisation and depathologisation are equivalent practices. They are not. Instead we might think of the relationship between these two practices in terms of intersectionality which we consider ‘not simply in terms of an additive process of rolling together a myriad of oppressed positionalities (though such a move can be valuable) but as a liminal space where different forms of marginality and politicised responses work in tension, across and with a host of politicised offerings in very generative ways’ (Goodley et al, 2020: 3). At NNDR, we sat through a number of presentations that demonstrated the contributions of disability studies not only to align with the lives and aspirations of disabled people but also to impact upon the constitution of disability in disciplines including medicine, rehabilitation, education, sociology, social policy, philosophy, psychology, nursing, public health, medical humanities and public health. Critical disability studies offers many things. One of these relates to the depathologisation of disability when many of these disciplines have historically pathologised disability. 

To consider the power of depathologisation we can learn much from decolonisation. Zondi (2022) outlines five decolonising practices:

First, relates to embracing our relational selves. Zondi (2022: 237) argues that we ‘embrace in earnest and in practice the ways of being long provided for in indigenous paradigms of being, such as ubuntu’. As with indigenous communities, disability communities have always historically engaged with relational interdependencies that challenge the individualisation tendencies of neoliberal-ableism. 

Second, is the mutual recognition of the humanity of others. This entails ‘being and doing human as a process of restoring, enriching and reinforcing the humanity of others, through our speech, the ways we relate to others, and the design of human systems’ (Zondi, 2022: 238). Never has this practice been more needed than now; in these post-pandemic times where disabled people have been devalued, dehumanised and rendered disposable by healthcare systems and governments.

Third, is communalism ‘understood principally as a way of living, of co-existing and working with others. It requires conscious efforts to function in ways that build communities and communal practices instead of perpetuating esoteric individualism that breaks human bonds’ (Zondi, 2022: 239). One might consider NNDR to be such a space - a community that supports and responds to the wider disabled people’s movement continues to generate collective support.

The fourth practice involves endeavouring to ‘achieve human excellence with humaneness’ (Zondi, 2022: 239). Approaching disability as a human rights issue is but one element of this aspiration; pulling disability away from a pathologising register into a political arena. Co-production and co-creation methods are another resource here where inquiry moves from the usual mode of 'disability as curious object' to 'disability as driving subject' where disabled researchers are front and centre of reserch.

Fifth, relates to going ‘beyond knowledge production’ (Zondi, 2022: 239). The critical interventions of disabled researchers, activists and artists push us to consider how we might think through and with decolonisation and depathologisation: a broad project of challenging ableism and disablism in knowledge production. Again, we have no desire to conflate nor collapse these processes of decolonisation and depathologisation; rather to consider how the two processes might support one another to create new knowledge that is anti-bourgeois, anti-colonial, anti-imperial, anti-global (Zondi, 2022: 232) and, may we add, anti-ableist and anti-disablist. 

We have been reminded this week of disability’s potential to depathologise disciplines that have historically pathologised. A question remains for us all: are our disciplines prepared to decolonise their curricula? 


Goodley, D., Lawthom, R., Liddiard, K., & Runswick-Cole, K. (2020). The Desire for New Humanisms, Journal of Disability Studies in Education, 1(1-2), 125-144. doi:

Zondi, S. (2022) A fragmented humanity and monologues: Towards a diversal humanism. In Melissa Steyn and William Mpofu (editors). Decolonising the Human: Reflections from Africa on Difference and Oppression.Johannesburg: Wits University Press. Pages 224 - 242.

Robot reading books

Our work

How we understand being ‘human’ differs between disciplines and has changed radically over time. We are living in an age marked by rapid growth in knowledge about the human body and brain, and new technologies with the potential to change them.

Centres of excellence

The University's cross-faculty research centres harness our interdisciplinary expertise to solve the world's most pressing challenges.