Models of disability: is the Religious model still relevant today?

2008-08-02 by

Models of Disability are theories that help us understand disability. As you might have heard, the Social Model of disability has been hugely empowering for many disabled people as it explains their exclusion from society in a practical way, unlike other theories that only focus on “what’s wrong” with them.

The term ‘Social model’ was borne by Mike Oliver, a Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Greenwich, as an explanation of disabled people’s way of identifying themselves in society. Mike Oliver and other academics, distinguished these most common ways of explaining disability:

  • the Religious model: in which disability is explained as a punishment or curse or perhaps a blessing
  • the Medical model: in which disability is explained in terms of an individual’s limitations and impairments, with disabled people needing to be cured
  • the Social model: in which disability is explained as a condition created by society and the environment, not the result of an individual’s impairment

From the Social model, other models were developed: in a very summarised way, disability is explained both in terms of impairment as well as social and environmental factors.

A religious view

I’d like to tell you a little about the Religious Model to begin with.

The religious model is a theory that shows how people’s religious beliefs are sometimes projected onto a person with a disability. For example, according to this theory, people with epilepsy may be viewed by some as being possessed by the devil. Or, people with learning disabilities could be viewed as ‘innocents’ or ‘angels’ who are closer to God. Some people believe that disabled people will automatically go to heaven when they die as they’ve already ‘suffered’ in this life; others believe that disabled people are cursed and are unholy.

These attitudes are not necessarily all negative or all positive: they are simply an interpretation of disability by an individual in the light of their personal religious beliefs. These attitudes are still alive and well to this day.

For example, look up the story of Lakshmi Tatma , who was born in a small village in India, with a conjoined atrophic twin attached to her and looked as if she had four arms and four legs.

The BBC News website reports that “The child has been hailed by some in her village in the northern state of Bihar as the reincarnation of the multi-limbed Hindu goddess of wealth, Lakshmi.”

The attitudes represented by the Religious model can lead to disabled people being ignored by society as their disability is identified with misfortune or punishment – things that most people would rather not think about. At other times these attitudes can even be positive and encouraging of disability, such as the little Indian girl case.

But if you think that a religious view of disability only happens in other countries, you’d be surprised. Remember when Glenn Hoddle , the ex-manager of the England football squad was sacked from his job for remarks he made about disabled people?

He said: “You and I have been given two hands and two legs and half decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason; the karma is working from another lifetime. I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap.”

Unsurprisingly, most disabled people reject this view of punishment and retribution, that somehow disabled people are being punished for some past sin committed in the past or in a past life.

Whilst it is understood that Glenn Hoddle is entitled to his views, unfortunately a person in his hugely influential position (at the time), can unfortunately contribute to the spreading of prejudice and false beliefs.

Disabled people do not wish to be judged according to someone else’s beliefs or superstitions. Living with disability is all part of being human and many of us experience it in our lives. By judging disabled people as recipients of blessings or punishments, we are effectively increasing the sense of alienation and difference between disabled and non-disabled people. In fact all of us are unique and different, regardless of ability or disability.

I find that religious interpretations of disability are still alive today – these views are still relevant because knowing of them helps us understand how disabled people are still judged and discriminated against. But I sincerely doubt a religious view of disability is at all useful to our every-day lives.

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