Recently I watched two presentations by speakers with disabilities whose reflections couldn’t have been more dissimilar.

At one point they both outlined their future hopes. The first: “When I get to heaven, I’m going to have a brand-new body. I’m not going to walk with a limp or talk funny anymore. I’m going to walk and talk like Jesus. When I think of a brand-new body – to tie my own shoes, button my own shirt – what a glorious day that will be.”1

The second: “If I were given a choice, I would choose to live with cerebral palsy, as it makes me who I am. I like who I am, I like my history, I like my life. I’m not sure I’d sacrifice that for the sake of normal movement and speech.”2

These different points of view are based on different models of disability – the explanatory frameworks that guide understanding and action. The two models prevalent today are the medical and social models, and though in the above examples one mentions heaven and the other doesn’t, neither model is more or less Christian. We will now summarise these, and then rather than asking ‘Which model is better?’ will focus on questions that reflect larger biblical concerns:

  1. What is ‘ideal’ as a human being?3
  2. What abilities are core abilities?4
  3. What do we need to achieve human potential and flourishing?5

Characteristics of the medical model:6

  • Disability essentially means the same thing as impairment – a medical or functional problem of an individual. It is a deviation from normality – describing all the things a person can’t do compared with others. This concept of deviation is also shaped by a number of ‘unpacked’ assumptions about normal functioning.
  • Disability is negative. The label may describe functional loss, but generally ends in stigma and devaluing.
  • Disability refers to need and dependence – humane people provide help and care, and the person with the disability has nothing to offer in return.
  • When people with disabilities achieve an ordinary life, this is heroic or extraordinary.

The medical model is generally accepted as ‘common sense’, so thoroughly has it pervaded society.

However, while it enables us to see problems in individuals and fix them, we tend not to see the person more broadly, or society’s impact on disability.

In answer to our three questions, the medical model sees:

  1. The able body as the ideal body
  2. Abilities of functional independence as core abilities
  3. Medical and specialist services as the way to maximise potential.

Characteristics of the social model:

  • Disability is not about what a person can’t do, but how they are treated. To be disabled means to be discriminated against.
  • Disability is part of normal human diversity – a significant minority group with the same rights to exist and flourish.
  • Disability provides different and helpful life experiences and insights, and should not be defined by lack.
  • People are more than their label. The slogan ‘See the person’ is a reminder to look beyond appearances and to find ways our diversity complements each other.
  • Because disability is part of human diversity, it is not necessary to applaud people for carrying out normal activities, which reinforces the ‘otherness’ barrier.

The social model arose in the context of wider human rights struggles and has produced a great many gains, but some problems as well. In particular, the focus on ‘disability as discrimination’ downplays the real emotional and bodily challenges of disability.

Answering our three questions, the social model defines:

  1. No ideal body other than the diversity of every body
  2. Both functional independence and capacity to advocate as core abilities
  3. A just and accessible society as the key to maximising potential.

A biblical response

There are resonances in the Bible with both models. With the medical model the Bible shares a common sense perspective that the experience of disability is less than ideal,7 and shows through Jesus’ healing ministry that in disability we are in some ways experiencing life less than it should and will be.8

In support of the social model the Bible celebrates the diversity of God’s creation,9 the sanctity of human life made in God’s image10 and Jesus’ example and mandate to the church to welcome and include.11

But the Bible’s vantage point provides deeper answers:

  1. Neither the able body nor the diversity of every body is ideal7, but the human body of Jesus Christ. In Jesus we see what humanity should be within the limits of earthly existence, and what humanity will be when those limits are past. No one comes close to this humanity – we are all situated in a common experience of disability in relation to him.
  2. The Bible does not share our concern for functional independence. God can be equally glorified through blindness and sight,12 his power equally displayed through weakness as through strength13 and his character often better spoken for by people lacking eloquence.14 Rather, the Bible regards the ability to worship, to learn in community and to minister in God’s strength as core, which explains why the tables can be turned as to who is disabled.15
  3. While the Bible affirms the importance of a just society, fundamentally it is participation in God’s family that we all need. Only in that restored relationship with God and each other can we come to understand our purpose and realise our potential as God’s children. In this task all are needed.

In summary, this is not a call to replace the medical or social models, but for the church to remove discriminating barriers in recognition that we need each other and the gifts God has given to all. In the church, all members play a crucial role. The absence of people with a disability means loss for everyone.


  1. David Ring,
  2. Norman Kunc,
  3. Psalm 8.
  4. Micah 6:8.
  5. Our need and longing for God and God’s people are reflected in Psalm 84, and the indispensability of one another and Christ the head in the body imagery of 1 Cor. 12.
  6. B. Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology, NY: OUP, 2009. According to Creamer, the medical model incorporates both a commitment to medical intervention and negative assumptions and attitudes towards disability. Such ‘charity’ thinking is sometimes categorised as a separate model.
  7. Lev. 19:14; Is. 29:18.
  8. Matt. 11:5.
  9. Job 39–41.
  10. Psalm 139.
  11. Luke 14:1–25.
  12. John 9.
  13. 2 Cor. 12:7–10.
  14. Exodus 4:11; 1 Cor. 1:17.
  15. Isaiah 43:8; Rev. 3:17–18. 

Written by Lindsey Gale.

Please note this article does not discuss the human-rights based model of disability. CBM Australia takes a human-rights based approach to development – working towards a more inclusive and equitable world where people with disabilities are able to enjoy their rights on an equal basis with people without disabilities as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities