disability and theology #4

Is disability situated in the body? If you’re anything like me, you may well say ‘obviously, yes’. But I was challenged about that.

In the literature on disability, people identify two models for understanding disability:

  1. The medical model is what most of us are familiar with. In the medical model disability is thought of as a loss of bodily function. Disability is by definition negative in this model and treatment is directed at restoring function. It is understood as a deviation from what is acceptably ‘normal’ and specifically located in the body of the person with a disability. This way of thinking about disability as deviance from the norm can lead to ways of talking about people with a disability as less than whole, where something is missing.
  2. The minority model is probably what you’d hear disability activists espousing. And it makes a lot of sense! This model shifts the focus of attention from the person with a disability as a patient (to whom things are done) to the person with a disability as citizen (who does things). It locates disability in the society that facilitates exclusion and therefore calls for changes in society to allow the full participation of persons who have some form of physical or psychological impairment. The social model of disability is therefore necessarily political, in that it calls for changes in values and attitudes rather than scientific advances.

Both these models are useful, but neither is sufficient. It’s interesting the way healing narratives in the gospels describe Jesus restoring people’s bodies and addressing their exclusion from the community and from relationship with God.

So, for example, in Matthew 9, Jesus heals the paralytic as evidence that he can heal the much more important wound that is sin. Jesus restores the paralytic not only to health but to relationship with God. In Luke 5:12-16, Jesus heals a leper, making him clean and freeing him to rejoin the community and participate in worship.

Jesus is not concerned simply with either physical restoration or restoration of community. He heals the body as a means of restoring relationship (for more check out the Berinyuu article in my reference list).


  1. Hey Nat,
    I’ve been preparing a sermon on Luke 13:10-17 and have been thinking through some of the issues you have been blogging on. A question I am still thinking through is: Are disabilities a result of the fall? Viewing the question through the the minority model makes the answer clear. I guess what i’m getting at is hypothetically (is that how you spell it) if the fall hadn’t taken place, would/could people still have disabilities?

    1. Peter — that’s a really hard question! I think it’s one of those things we just won’t really know until we get to ask Jesus in person. But for what it’s worth, flying my colours to the wind, here’s what I think at the moment: in a hypothetical unFallen world, yes, people’s bodies could have been created with a range of different types of ‘impairments’, but no, people would not be excluded because of them.

      Most of the literature suggests that ‘disability’ is two-fold; first, some individuals experience greater physical/mental limitation than others, but second, they are then discriminated against (by being denied access to services, opportunities and relationships). It is this discrimination that is the substance of ‘disability’. So, poor eyesight is a physical impairment, but being teased as ‘four-eyes’ and being turned down for that job is what really causes disability.

      Given that all of us, even before the fall, have mind or bodies that are limited, I don’t think it’s problematic to conceive of a pre-Fall world in which people are created with a range of abilities and limitations. Adam needed a helper after all. I think it is the negative social and relational implications arising from a fear of difference and hatred of (perceived) weakness that reflect the brokenness of the human heart, mind and soul.

      We’ll get to this later, but I think the picture of the restored order of the church being one body is very beautiful — it reflects the way we ought to delight in and treasure the contributions of all our brothers and sisters to the life of the people of God.

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