The Psychology of Disability

Authored by: Dan Goodley

Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies

Print publication date:  February  2012
Online publication date:  March  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415574006
eBook ISBN: 9780203144114
Adobe ISBN: 9781136502170


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Disability studies theory and research have emerged in response to the politicization of disabled people. Disability studies attends to the social, cultural, material, economic and material conditions of exclusion. Often missing from these analyses is the psychology of disability. This exemption is understandable. Psychology has a troubling and troubled status in disability studies. When disability and psychology cross they tend to in terms of rehabilitation, treatment, therapy and cure. While there have been recent attempts to colonize psychology with disability studies (Goodley and Lawthom 2005a, 2005b, 2005c), psychology has the potential to individualize the material, political and cultural foci of disability studies. Disabled people remain un(der)represented on psychology courses (Olkin 2003), and, as indicated in the accounts of Levinson and Parritt (2005) and Stannett (2005), disabled psychologists remain excluded from the profession. Despite these problems, following (Goodley 2011a), merging disability studies and psychology might allow us to address a number of issues, including: theorizing the psychological impact of living with an impairment in a disabling society; exploring the ways in which disabled people psychologically deal with demanding publics and exposing non-disabled people’s unresolved, unconscious conflicts around disability. While addressing these issues might well contribute to the development of disability studies, the idea of developing a psychology of disability raises two significant questions. Does a turn to psychology risk individualizing the phenomenon of disability? What psychological orientations already exist that may enhance our understandings of disability? This chapter will address these questions by making a case against ‘a functionalist psychology of disability’ and developing, as an alternative, an argument for ‘a phenomenological psychology of disability’. I will argue that a psychology of disability, which positions psychology as a functionalist science, that develops as the discipline of the individual, treats individuals in ways that maintain the disablist status quo. In contrast, a critical psychology of disability that recasts psychology as phenomenological inquiry, develops psychology as a discipline of and for the community and seeks to treat the community in ways that challenge disabling conditions of everyday life.

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