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“Take a look and see if you can see the differences here,” I said offhandedly to a student I was tutoring. As soon as I said it, I felt my face go red with shame. What would have been a perfectly unremarkable statement to any other student felt embarrassingly wrong when directed to the student in my office who was blind. As much as I liked to think of myself as an inclusive Christian educator who modelled God’s expansive love for all people, I came face-to-face with the stark realization that I was perpetuating the same ableist mindsets,1 behaviors, and speech patterns that I had unconsciously imbibed from the broken culture all around me.

Unfortunately, neither the Church nor Christian higher education is immune to these ableist tendencies. Despite having traditions that would support a robust theology of disability, many institutions, whether ecclesial or educational, fall prey to upholding temporarily abled bodies2 as the ideal. I would argue that these ableist tendencies fall short of the vision of full human flourishing that emerges within the pages of the biblical text. Furthermore, I suggest that Christian educators (including myself!) might be better equipped to engage in our mission-driven work by rooting out the ableism that separates us from one another and denies us the flourishing for which we were created.

In this two-part series, I hope to take on two tasks related to equipping Christian educators to resist ableism and to celebrate the diversity of their students. Here in Part 1, I will outline three major models for understanding disability and how one of those models (the cultural model) can provide a helpful paradigm shift for understanding disability. Later, in Part 2, I will suggest how the application of this paradigm shift can lead to a recognition and celebration of the students with disabilities whom we serve.

Models of Disability

Although it may seem like a strange or even unnecessary place to begin, defining the models of disability with which we operate has real consequences for the degree to which we are equipped to recognize and celebrate students with disabilities. While far longer explorations of the predominant models of disability abound in disability research, I would like to highlight just three that emerge among the most predominant ones: the medical model, the social model, and the cultural model.

The Medical Model

Arguably one of the most prevalent models of disability, the medical model is also, perhaps, one of the most prone to supporting ableist structures. As Justin Anthony Haegele and Samuel Hodge observe, the medical model identifies disability as a deficiency or abnormality that must be corrected by “fixing” the disability and “normalizing” the disabled person to the greatest extent possible.3 In other words, the medical model identifies disability as an individual problem that must be addressed by medical interventions.

The Social Model

The social model differs considerably from the medical model. A social model of disability, as Haegele and Hodge summarize it, understands disability as a social construct that is imposed upon various impairments and that is addressed by the removal of environmental barriers that restrict full access from all individuals.4 A colleague of mine who is a disability advocate illustrated it to me like this: a person in a wheelchair is not disabled until the lack of a ramp disables them from entering a building. In other words, disability is understood as the failure of appropriate environmental and systemic structures to support a variety of individuals with differing access requirements.

The Cultural Model

Where the social model moves beyond the medical model of disability by looking at underlying factors, the cultural model goes deeper still. Anne Waldschmidt defines this model saying that it “considers impairment, disability and normality as effects generated by academic knowledge, mass media, and everyday discourses.”5 Thus, in this model, both disability and “normality” are cultural constructs existing within larger discursive environments. From a Christian perspective, then, understandings of disability emerge from a broken and sinful culture that leaves its fingerprints on such understandings.

A Model of Disability to Overcome Ableism

For Christian educators who are seeking to recognize and celebrate their students with disabilities, creating discursive environments that allow for a wide range of physical and mental functioning offers an important first step. As I have argued elsewhere, this was the very sort of task in which Jesus himself was involved.6 That is, even as Jesus did address physical impairments, he also proved to be concerned with reintegrating and normalizing individuals with disabilities.

In the case of a man with leprosy, Jesus instructs him to perform the necessary rituals that would normalize his presence in settings where religious purity was upheld (Matthew 8:1-4). In the case of the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus instructs the man to “go home to [his] own people” (Mark 5:19) so that he might be viewed as a normal member of his community. In short, Jesus’s own encounters with disability involve cultural redefinitions in which Jesus normalizes individuals previously perceived as disabled. Jesus stepped into the broken culture of his time and invited nothing short of a cultural paradigm shift that would allow for the inclusion of formerly excluded people.

Viewing disability as a cultural construction, rather than as a medical problem to be solved or an issue of ensuring access, aligns well with the work of Christian higher education. That is, insofar as the work of Christian educators involves contributing to the transformation of our students by inviting them to see themselves and the world in a new way, this venture is inherently poised to adopt and benefit from a cultural model of disability. As I will explore in Part 2 of this series, adopting a cultural model of disability allows Christian educators to recognize and celebrate student disability as a manifestation of the diverse inclusion of all people in the Kingdom of God.


  1. Ableism refers to a bias against people with disabilities and an (often unacknowledged) preference for temporarily able-bodied individuals. Like other “-isms” (e.g. racism, sexism, etc.), ableism reflects an unfair privileging of one group of people over another based on immutable aspects of personal identity.
  2. Rather than using the term “able-bodied,” I prefer the terminology of “temporarily abled.” This recognizes that bodies change over a lifetime such that a body at age twenty may have very different needs than a body at age ninety. Furthermore, as a cultural model of disability illustrates, no body is inherently an able one. All bodies are abled and disabled by their environments, cultures, and contexts.
  3. Justin Anthony Haegele and Samuel Hodge, “Disability Discourse: Overview and Critiques of the Medical and Social Models,” Quest 68, no. 2 (2016): 194.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Anne Waldschmidt, “Disability Goes Cultural: The Cultural Model of Disability as an Analytical Tool,” in Culture – Theory – Disability: Encounters between Disability Studies and Cultural Studies, eds. Anne Waldschmidt, Hanjo Berressem, and Moritz Ingwersen (Bielefeld, Germany: Verlag, 2017), 24.
  6. Melanie A. Howard, “Jesus’s Healing Ministry in New Perspective: Toward a Cultural Model of Disability in Anabaptist-Mennonite Hermeneutics,” Conrad Grebel Review 38, no. 2 (Spring 2020): 94-106.

Melanie A. Howard

Fresno Pacific University
Melanie A. Howard, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Program Director of Biblical and Theological Studies at Fresno Pacific University where she also serves as the Chair of the Biblical and Religious Studies Division.


  • Jerome Van Kuiken says:

    I appreciate this article’s intent to raise awareness of disabled persons, increase their access to education, and celebrate their inclusion as equally valued members of God’s people. The biblical material cited, though, actually supports the medical model: Jesus first “fixes” the leper by cleansing his leprosy (Matt. 8:2-3) and the demoniac by exorcizing his demons (Mark 5:8-15), then gives them instructions to reintegrate them into society as persons no longer disabled (Matt. 8:4; Mark 5:19, respectively). Jesus doesn’t treat leprosy or demonization as faulty cultural constructions in need normalization via a paradigm shift; his acts of healing and exorcism show that he shares his culture’s opinion that leprosy and demonization are conditions at odds with God’s intent for human flourishing. A better biblical basis for the cultural model of disability is 2 Cor. 12:7-10. There Paul subverts the Greco-Roman cultural value of boasting in one’s abilities by boasting instead in his weakness and in Christ’s decision not to free Paul from his “thorn in the flesh.”

  • Fabulous article. I plan to require this as an assigned reading in a spring 2024 course, Disability in Society, a course at Messiah University that examines disability primarily in the context of church and community. Thank you for this work.

    • Melanie Howard says:

      Hi Melinda! I’m actually a Messiah alum, and so I’m delighted to hear that I’m able to contribute in this small way to your work at Messiah! My time there was life-changing. (And if you’d ever find it helpful to have me Zoom in to chat with your students, I’d certainly be happy to do so!)

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    Yes. Jesus gave His disciples two special powers to help those in need: to cast out demons and heal those with physical infirmities. Jesus’ command to the demoniac to declare what the Lord had done for him referred to his being freed from demonic possession.

    I have very poor hand-eye coordination because of a lack of depth perception stemming from “defects” in one of my eyes. I failed my vision test to acquire a learner’s permit for driving and so never did get a full license. The problem is permanent; I do not drive. It is sometimes a terrible inconvenience for my wife, and certainly a thorn in the flesh. But each of us is a spiritual being given a physical body for this world. Our core value is spiritual, not physical, and is therefore not diminished by infirmities. That is a message that this world needs to hear not only about physical and cognitive disabilities but also gender issues. Our core value is innate and immeasurable.