“Longing to belong”. Spaces of (non-)belonging in the life trajectories of people with intellectual disabilities and additional mental health problems

Saturday, November 2, 2013
First author:
Lien Claes
Participation: Belonging Together


Disability Studies and Inclusive Education, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
All authors:

Lien Claes, Geert Van Hove

space/place – belonging – othering


This doctoral research project investigates life trajectories of people with intellectual disabilities and additional mental health problems in Flanders (Dutch speaking part of Belgium). Their complex support questions turn out to be precursors of endless trajectories in landscapes of care and support. Current research is primarily conducted from an individualistic, medical-psychiatric discourse, focusing on problems and treatment. In contrast, I am more fascinated by the life (hi)stories of people and by their experiences and meanings of particular spaces and places.


The life trajectories of people with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems are studied from a cross-fertilization of the theoretical perspectives Disability Studies and Social/Human Geography. In particular, three life trajectories are reconstructed through intense encounters with people themselves and with people in their natural and professional network, in which multiple research methods are adopted. Pictures appear as a very useful entrance to elicit memories and connected stories and emotions and serve as a communication medium, by which pictures perform the voice of the photographer. Researcher and research subject also go back to important places and spaces (i.e. former places of residence) and meet people who were important in this places and spaces.


This paper explores spaces of belonging, bridging and bonding in the narratives and trajectories of people with intellectual disability. It also tries to capture the way in which place and space can ‘other’ and ‘disable’ people. Ass well struggles for space and territoriality and mobility as a form of resistance are investigated.


People with intellectual disabilities and additional mental health problems are falling between the two stools of the categorically organized and functioning support systems in Flanders. Illustrative are the endless trajectories between the support system for people with disabilities and the mental health care system. These spaces are often associated with experiences of othering, separation and exclusion. An individualistic, medical-psychiatric discourse is primarily adopted. Furthermore, but often more peripherally, spaces of belonging and inclusion (for example: a place called ‘home’, working at the farm, the prolonged relation with former friends and family members) are mentioned. Obviously, also the relational, cooperative way in which this research is carried out, turns out to create spaces of belonging, bridging and bonding. We therefore put forward our relational conceptualization of disability studies, in which pedagogical encounters (see Davies & Gannon, 2009) are central, as crucial in both practice as research.


Davies, B. & Gannon, S. (2009). Pedagogical encounters. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.