“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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Justin Anthony Haegele and Samuel Hodge, “Disability Discourse: Overview and Critiques of the Medical and Social Models,” Quest 68, no. 2 (2016): 194.
- 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.
- 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.