Supporting Article

Human Services via Faith Groups

It would seem that a logical way to begin thinking about how impaired people should be supported with services would be to understand the concept of disability. This starting point is, in part, the reason the West experiences problems. Clearly, the idyllic visions of organizations can degrade over time. Yet, with a clear starting point, one is at least more likely to maintain a trajectory leading to desired outcomes.

Disability Models

There are many “models” of disability which are discussed in the field of disability studies. Arguably there are two which most clearly characterize what disability is. The medical model describes disability as characteristics of individuals. That is, the individual has some form of impairment, and the response of human services is to prevent, stop it if already occurring, or minimize the impact of the impairment. Services which are developed focus exclusively on improving the individual with the goal of somehow making that person “normal” or more acceptable—more like the majority of the population.

The social model describes disability as the response of the social environment, based upon socially constructed notions, to the personal characteristics of an individual (Barnes, Mercer and Shakespeare). Thus, because I have an impairment which causes me to need to use a wheelchair, I can expect to experience the social consequences of my disability in the form of discrimination or social disadvantage (Fritsch). In the same way that medical model interventions would be aimed at changing individuals, social model interventions would be aimed at changing the social environment: one mitigates impairment, the other mitigates discrimination (See the article “Wolfensberger’s 18 Wounds Faced by Devalued People.”)

Human services may not only not adequately address personal and social environment issues, they may exacerbate them. Human services may cause what is considered disability to actually morph into something that needs the types of services which have developed, thereby causing the impaired individual and the services to be treated as a traded commodity. I need to be poor so I spend down money in order to be eligible. I need to receive a certain score on a test (IQ test for example) in order to receive a particular label allowing services to be paid for. Independent of what my needs might be, I must submit to a specific menu of services which may or may not be the specific types of things that I need. Services are also delivered without necessarily being evaluated as to whether what I receive contributes to improving me in some way. So arguably, a society that endeavors to develop human services for vulnerable citizens would do well to consider the warnings offered about the problems of Western human services.

Additionally, services develop without a complete understanding of what disability is. As indicated above, the social model of disability says that the experience of disability cannot be entirely understood only by the effects of personal impairment. Rather, there are factors which can be attributed to discrimination by the social environment. So if human services treat disability exclusively as a characteristic of individuals, they misunderstand what disability actually is. Human services should also facilitate the changes in the way disability is socially constructed by the society and the social environment which lead to discrimination. This has been a major oversight of disability services resulting in less than optimal results of services.

The Realities of Human Services

Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger, one of the leading theorists in disability and human supports in America, developed a training program entitled “The History of Human Services.”[1] In summarizing the “core realities and defining characteristics of contemporary Western human services,” he observed that human services are formalized, objectified, and filled with bureaucracy. Both services and clients become commodified.

Services tend to rest on manipulation of the material world, often even without strong ties to powerful positive value. Afflicted and distressed people, including servers, are devalued. Devalued people are “deviancy imaged,” which results in emphasis or increasing their low value in the eyes of others. This occurs through the attachment of symbolisms which transmit negative messages, including services alien to the culture. There is large scale segregation and congregation of devalued people. Severe patterns of restriction are imposed on devalued people, often to the point of some form of confinement. There even seem to be disincentives against doing what is right and needed that are built into laws, regulations, funding, and so on. The cumulative result is about one-third of the population being in devalued/dependent/oppressed/impoverished status at phenomenal expense (Wolfensberger, 1998a).

However, Wolfensberger’s concluding statement is perhaps the most convicting. He says: “All the above is done with virtually total unconsciousness of the major realities involved, and all this is disguised/interpreted as good, effective, progressive, etc.” (Wolfensberger, 1998a). In a situation where a nation is looking to develop or improve human services, it would seem it might want to be cognizant of these core realities from places where services have been in existence for a while.

Faith Communities as the Purveyors of Human Services

Interestingly, in China there have been discussions about the potential of faith communities as the purveyors of human services. These groups have historically pooled resources in a very natural way in order to assist members who fall into difficulty. Friends help their friends. Neighbors help their neighbors. These same types of natural connections occur within faith communities among community members. Writing from a Christian perspective, the author would add that this is particularly true of the Christian faith. Numerous Bible verses chide about a lack of concern for one’s neighbor.[2]These largely focus around the command to “love your neighbor” which is second only to loving God (Matthew 22:37-39).

There are many potential “secular” benefits to faith participation (McNair & Schindler, 2011). Should faith communities participate in human services delivery, we can envision at least seven benefits. Let us consider each one briefly.

First, because human services are offered by a faith community, there is a greater likelihood of real relationships and friendships developing with people who are not paid to be in relationship with the person receiving services. Too often, persons with disabilities have lives filled only with people who either have no choice but to be with them (family members) or people who are paid to be with them. To create a situation where there is greater likelihood that people would be chosen and engage in real friendships is highly desirable.

Secondly, supports are potentially less restricted by menus for services. Since the community provides the support, the resources of the community are available and will reflect the local area.

Next, because local people are facilitating services, there will be local understanding of needs, options, and concerns at every level. This reality contrasts with services which are developed on a national scale and likely are less relevant in some areas geographically or among certain people groups.

Fourth, people of faith will have an unrestricted understanding of the contribution faith makes to human supports, particularly in terms of motivation and evaluation. Faith leaders would be encouraged to further expand and apply the teachings of their faith to the development of a loving and supportive community.

Local faith communities would then, fifth, have a greater likelihood to develop human supports as both medical and social model activities (as described above). The social environment will be the faith community, so we are preparing for people to be accepted well into the future. If the desire is to facilitate a change in the social environment so that it is less discriminatory, one must wonder what motivates an environment to change when not personally affected by disability.

This leads to number six in that faith communities are minimally motivated by the tenets of their faith to accept others. As a more circumscribed social environment directed by a religious leader, there may be a greater likelihood that devaluing tendencies are more likely to be changeable. Laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States, have resulted in dramatically improved physical access in the community. However, in thinking about social access, one wonders what motivates a group of people to be inclusive? How can we make it easier for people to do the right thing socially toward their neighbor? The faith of faith communities can be the motivation for change in the social environment. McNair & McKinney wonder if physical ramps are developed so those who use wheelchairs can access the physical environment, perhaps “social ramps” can be developed to assist access to the social environment. Faith communities are logical venues for the development of social ramps.

Finally, faith provides an alternative narrative about who people with disabilities are, based upon the concept of God and the resulting narrative about what disability is. Faith communities must offer a Christian perspective on both disability and human supports. So for example, a biblical understanding would include the following:

  • People with disabilities are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26).
  • They are created with a purpose (Exodus 4:11 and Psalms 139:13).
  • Their disability is not the result of their, or their parent’s, sin (John 9:3-4).
  • They are indispensable to the Christian community and should be treated with special honor (1 Corinthians 12:22-23).
  • Having a disability is not the result of a lack of faith but rather a demonstration of God’s power made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
  • Upon understanding these, one is then admonished to change their perspective (Romans 12:2).

This is no exhaustive listing of the biblical narrative on disability, but it clearly demonstrates how a socially constructed understanding of disability might be influenced by a biblical narrative. This, then, can potentially lead to a different form of human services other than that decried above which is occurring in the West.


Clearly the provision of human services cannot be simply turned over to faith communities without financial and other assistance. It may be that some form of partnership which includes faith communities should be explored. However, one should recognize that there is a significant role that faith groups can play in supporting disabled, devalued and disenfranchised community members that is currently not being adequately utilized by human service experts in the West.


  1. ^ Available online, this ten hour video presentation, “A History of Human Services, Universal Lessons and Future Implications” presented by Wolf Wolfensberger, PhD and Susan Thomas, Training Coordinator, can be found at
  2. ^ The classic story of “The Good Samaritan,” told in Luke 10:25-27, is an example of how the teachings of a faith community can lead to the provision of human supports. When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the description of a man who had been beaten and left for dead. He was minimally disabled at the time of his attack. The author had a dear friend who had been beaten and left for dead who lived the rest of his life with a traumatic brain injury and paraplegia. Jesus’ response is very telling about whom one might be responsible for.


Barnes, C., Mercer, G., & Shakespeare, T. (Edx.), (1999). Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge, MA: Policy Press.

Fritsch, K. (2004). “SuperCrip Strikes Again: Or Mine-Body Dualism.” Conference proceedings, Disability Studies Association, Retrieved from

McNair, J. & McKinney, B. (2015). “Social Ramps: The Principles of Universal Design Applied to the Social Environment.” Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability (JCID), Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring/Winter, (p. 43-68).

McNair, J. & Schindler, A. (2011). “A Secular Case for Religious Inclusion of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities” (p. 91-102). In D. Schumm & M. Stoltzfus (eds.), Disability and Religious Diversity: Cross-cultural and Inter-religious Perspectives, NY, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wolfensberger, W. & Thomas, S., (1998a). A History of Human Services, Universal Lessons and Future Implications. Presented to The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and available at,

Wolfensberger, W. (1998b). A Brief Introduction to Social Role Valorization: A High-order Concept for Addressing the Plight of Societally Devalued People and for Structuring Human Services (3rd ed.)Syracuse, NY: Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership & Change Agentry (Syracuse University).

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Jeff McNair

Jeff McNair, PhD, is a professor of special education and disability studies at California Baptist University.View Full Bio