Phys Med Rehab Kuror 2015; 25 - IS28
DOI: 10.1055/s-0035-1554840

Religious Attitudes towards Disability

X Michail 1
  • 1Technological Educational Institute of Athens, Faculty of Physiotherapy, Athens, GR, Hellenic Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine, European Society of PRM

The World Report on Disability (2011) defines disability as “an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions, denoting the negative aspects of the interaction between an individual (with a health condition) and that individual's contextual factors (environmental and personal factors)” (World Health Organization, 2011).

Disability is perceived as ‘a result of sin’ (Bowers, 2004) or as ‘must be healed’ (Möller, 2012) in several countries. Since many people with disabilities encounter barriers and inequalities in society (WHO, 2011), the level of participation of persons with disabilities in society could be related to religious belief systems.

Models of Disability are theories that help us understand disability. Mike Oliver a Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Greenwich, and other academics, distinguished the following three 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.

The ‘social model’ (Oliver, 1981) perspective of disability advocates disability as a form of social oppression. The term ‘Social model’ was borne by Mike Oliver, as an explanation of disabled people's way of identifying themselves in society. 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 religious model is a theory that shows how people's religious beliefs are sometimes projected onto a person with a disability. 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.

The rights of people with disabilities (PWD) are well protected in existing international, regional, and national human rights instruments. They include the formulation of the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) and The World Report on Disability (2011).

The purposes of the Convention are to promote, protect, and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity. They are further meant to facilitate the full participation of PWD in all sectors of society.

Despite these efforts, the rights of PWD are not always upheld, but continue to be marked by experiences of discrimination, prejudice, and inequality.

One of the major root causes for the discriminatory acts against PWD is religion- related. Theological interpretations of disability have significantly shaped the ways in which society relates to PWD.

Eiesland (1994:73 – 74) identifies three theological themes that have created obstacles for PWD. The first is conflating disability with sin. The second theme views disability as virtuous suffering. The third theme perceives PWD as cases of charity. The outcome of all these themes is what Eiesland (1994) has referred to as a "disabling theology."

Although Biblical and theological views of disability have led to a discriminatory and exclusive approach to viewing PWD, it is important to point out that perspectives that take an emancipatory and inclusive approach to disability issues are also found in the Bible and Christian theology.

In Islamic, Christian, Jewish and Buddhist believe, disabled people play a very important role within the communities. Disability is not simply a punishment for mistakes but has the purpose to show others – healthier and wealthier people – respect, humility and charity.

To really be meaningful to persons with a disability, it is recommended to pay attention to religious values in CBR programs. It is important to focus on the positive and negative effects of religious values on the lives of people (with disabilities).

Furthermore, it is recommended to pay attention to the opinion of society at large, and to pay attention to the role that religious leaders could play in the acceptance of people with disabilities.


[1] Treloar, L. L. (n.d.). Spiritual Care & Disability: Applications for Professionals. Retrieved January 15, 2013, from˜kinsner/sds2001/proceed/pdocs/htms/10.HTM

[2] World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, International Labour Organization, International Disability and Development Consortium (2010). Community-based rehabilitation: CBR guidelines. Geneva, World Health Organization.

[3] World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank (2011). World Report on Disability. Retrieved May 7, 2012,

[4] World Health Organization (WHO, 2013). World Disabilities and rehabilitation. Community-based rehabilitation (CBR). Retrieved March 28, 2013, from