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Disability Workshop for Adults: Making Meaning of Disability
Disability Workshop for Adults: Making Meaning of Disability
Disability & Accessibility

Workshop Overview


Suggested for all congregants.


Would it come as a surprise to you that most of the obstacles encountered by people with disabilities are socially constructed (and we don’t mean just architecture)?  This workshop encourages participants to identify with their own experiences of feeling included.  It introduces the concept of models of disability, highlighting major models, then points to the framework of the social model of disability as a starting point for congregational understanding of disability, and contrasts it with the medical model for clarity.  It encourages participants to explore a religious approach to inclusion.

Goals and Learning Objectives

  • To introduce inclusion and accessibility.
  • To introduce the medical and social models of disability.
  • To affirm the religious nature of this work.


  • You will need: a chalice, a flipchart, and markers (or other way to post for the group).
  • Parts of this workshop are designed for journaling.  Provide paper for participants.  Also, provide a journaling alternative – a quiet space where someone may dictate if they have their own technology or to dictate in confidence to a facilitator, for example.


  • Story of Lucas, in Year of Our Lord:  Faith, Hope and Harmony in the Mississippi Delta, by T.R. Pearson.  Mockingbird Publishing, 2010.


See Leader Resource 1:  Models of Disability & Leader Resource 2: Reflections on the Social Model of Disability.  (These resources appear in this handbook, after this workshop’s activities are described.)


  • Review
  • Read over the lesson and explore the suggested readings.  Decide how you might want to alter or augment the workshop with some of the knowledge you have picked up in these readings.  You may want to add in some specific discussion questions having to do with disabilities in your congregation. 
  • You may want to make a handout of the Additional Resources for people who would like to do some independent reading after the workshop, and/or email the resources to interested participants.
  • If you chose to have four people present the models, provide each with a copy of Leader Resource 1 & 2.

Spiritual Preparation

Set aside time for journaling, reflection, or other form of contemplation, using these focus questions:

  • Consider a time in your life when you felt included.  What about that experience signals for you the feeling of inclusion?
  • Consider the four commonly used models of disability included in this workshop.  Do you have strong feelings about any of these models?  These models may bring up questions from the group which may make you or other participants uncomfortable.  Do what you can to prepare so that you can allow discomfort in the room.

Workshop Plan

Welcoming and Entering


  • Light the chalice:

We kindle this light in the chalice of our community that it may ever call us to the joys and challenges of living our faith.

Opening Reading

Introduce the first activity with the following reading about inclusion in church communities.  Explain we will be exploring these ideas in this workshop.

In his book, Year of Our Lord:  Faith, Hope and Harmony in the Mississippi Delta, T.R. Pearson tells the story of Lucas McCarty, a young white man born with severe cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair but also gets around by walking on his knees with the help of knee pads worn over his blue jeans.  He shouts and makes vocal sounds, but for the most part communicates through an electronic language device.  Lucas became a member of the Trinity House of Prayer, a small, poor African American congregation.  He was embraced by the congregation and was in no way considered out of place or disruptive.  Lucas even joined the choir. 

Pearson writes, “Without exception, Trinity’s members treated Lucas with unstudied compassion.  At no financial cost to the congregation—no special programs, no architectural alterations—they demonstrated that making people with disabilities, even severe disabilities, feel a part of them is within reach of every house of worship.  Sometimes it's not about building a ramp.  Sometimes it really is about opening up your heart.” 


Activity 1:  Inclusion Exercise (35 minutes)

Invite the participants to think of times in their life when they felt included, a part of the group, a part of a community.  Ask:  What in their experience signaled to them that they were included?  Invite them to write or draw in their journal; provide a journaling alternative.  Allow 10 minutes for reflection and journaling.

Post the following prompt: “I know I’m included when…”

Invite participants to create groups of three and to share their stories with one another.  Draw their attention to the prompt.  Ask the group to respond to the prompt and record their comments.  Allow 10 minutes for small-group conversation, then gather the large group again.

Post the following prompt: “What does it mean for you to be inclusive of others?”

Ask the large group to respond to the new prompt and record their comments.

Activity 2:  Models of Disability (25 minutes)

This activity consists of presentation of alternate models of understanding disability and discussion of their implications.  Keep in mind that some participants may be clinicians, some of whom may have a different relationship to the medical model than some people who live with disabilities.  You may want to have different people present each model; if so, supply them with a copy of Leader Resource 1:  Models of Disability, preferably in advance of the workshop.

Introduce this activity with these or similar words:

What is disability?  We’re going to look at four major models that reflect different ways that people understand disability, and discuss how those frameworks influence attitudes and behavior.

Use Leader Resource 1:  Models of Disability to introduce the four models of disability. 

  • Turn-and-Buzz Activity (6 minutes):  Ask participants to form dyads with someone near them and reflect on the following: 
  • What differences did you notice in how these models define disability?
  • Who is challenged to change by each model?
  • How do these models feel or seem different?
  • Large-Group Discussion (10 minutes):  Ask participants:  How might our choice of models change the conversation about inclusion for people living with disabilities?
Activity 3:  Making Meaning (35 minutes)

Introduce the activity with these or similar words:

We’ve talked about different frameworks for understanding disability that are widely used.  Now let’s look at some ways we might connect our conversation about inclusion with our faith tradition:

One starting point is morality or ethics.  We ask ourselves “what is the right thing to do?” and appeal to ethical principles.  We do this when we take a justice-based approach.  We may relate human rights to the ethical principle that everyone matters.

Hospitality as a spiritual practice is another route.  Hospitality is about welcoming a stranger into our home, and prioritizing their comfort.  Hospitality is mutual.  As a spiritual practice, it invites us to encounter our own discomforts with difference, and be transformed in the process.  Are we comfortable being both guest and host?

As faith communities, we make promises, express or implied, to share our spiritual journeys.  How do we decide with whom we are in covenant?

Invite the whole group to share other ways we might use our faith or our values to frame our understanding of inclusion.

Small-Group Activity:  Break up into groups of about six people.  Ask the groups to consider one of the following questions:

  • When you told a fellow congregant you attended this workshop they said “We welcome everyone.  Why can’t people with disabilities just fit in like everybody else?”  How might you respond?
  • What in our congregation’s mission, covenant, or shared story calls us to be intentional in creating inclusive community?

After 20 minutes, bring the groups together again and ask them to report back.


  • Offer participants the opportunity to call out something from today’s discussion that intrigued them or that they are taking home.
  • Give thanks for the participation, and for the promise that this knowledge has brought to the congregation.
  • Extinguish the chalice:  We extinguish this light, ever mindful of the transformational power of our shared community.

Leader Resource 1:  Models of Disability

The moral model of disability associates disability with some personal shortcoming of the individual.  Some people believe that disability is a punishment for sins, either one’s own or those of a parent.  Or that one’s faith is not strong enough.  Or that one doesn’t exercise enough or have a “healthy” diet.  Or that if a person just tried harder, they would be able to overcome whatever barriers they encounter.  All of these are forms of the moral model that are current today.

The moral model is associated with feelings of shame and guilt, and historically, has led to ostracism.

The tragedy model of disability is based on the idea that people with disabilities are victims of circumstance.  This framework is focused on what a person could have been like, if only this terrible thing had not happened to them.  Alternate ways of doing tend to be discounted.  The idea that living with a disability could be part of one’s identity, and the idea of disability pride, are difficult to comprehend using this framework.

The tragedy model is associated with pity.  Issues are approached as a form of charity.

The medical model of disability has been the dominant model since the 1700s.  In this way of thinking, disability is seen as a deficiency or dysfunction of individual persons. The model emphasizes identifying a patient’s impairments and limitations, and seeking to manage the disability through individual treatment or adaptive equipment.  Issues are framed in terms of access to and provision of medical care or rehabilitation. 

The medical model has been the dominant metaphor for understanding disability, and it frames discussions far beyond the clinic doors. 

The social model of disability is grounded in the idea that disability is a natural part of human variation.  What we perceive as “disability” arises when society does not accommodate the full range of human differences.  In this way of thinking, while variations may cause individual impairments or limitations, these do not of themselves constitute a disability.  Disability arises when society fails to include people without regard to these differences.  The model emphasizes social and cultural changes by a community to broaden participation, including universal design.

The social model frames issues in terms of human rights, and is widely used in disability studies and disability justice movements.

Leader Resource 2:  Reflections on the Social Model of Disability by Lisa Ferris

Read the reflections on the social model by Lisa Ferris in Leader Resource 2.  Ask participants for their reactions to this reflection.

What blew me away when thinking of the social model of disability was to realize that everything is an accommodation. Everything. Your computer at work. Your chair. Your lunch hour and sick days. Work policies and union negotiations. Traffic lights, parking lots. Door height, step height, volume buttons, etc. The print in Newspapers, street signs, all of it--everything people create and design. Because my accommodations may look different than yours does not make mine special, lesser, unequal or taking it the other way, give me an advantage or special treatment. Disability is a natural part of the human condition, not a deficit. Societal attitudes about disability (or even its definition) are not even about medical conditions and impairments, they are simply about how wide a berth on any given bell curve of human characteristics we are willing to go to accommodate. Disability activists have shown time and again that the wider you go to be inclusive, the more benefits are enjoyed by all, no matter where they live on the curve. 

The bell curve idea (which is not new, of course) came to me a long time ago when I heard about the reclassification of the term  “mental retardation” as it was called back then. The criteria was changed by actually MOVING the line on the bell curve of a Stanford Binet IQ test. Instead of 85 (one standard deviation below the norm), it became 70 (two standard deviations). Or something like that.  So, a bunch of people that previously met the criteria for services now did not and no longer received services. It also occurred to me that people hovering around there (what Special Ed people used to rudely call a “dull normal”), could probably use some level of support but got none, and probably got treated pretty badly.

Another example is Personal Care Attendant (PCA) services. in Oregon (and probably other states) people who need PCA services get a number that indicates how dependent on this type of care they are. The lower the number, the more care needed. At one point in Oregon, people could get PCA care if their number was up to 14. Slowly it has been lowered and now that number is 8. So, if you are an 8, you may actually be less “disabled” than a person who is a 9, because you are getting supports and they are not. Its interesting to see how disability is so dependent on socially constructed definitions and policies. 

Additional Resources

Social Model of Disability

Radical Hospitality

Inclusion Exercise

Religious Hospitality:
A Spiritual Practice for Congregations

Peter Morales
From inSpirit: The UU Book and Gift Shop
Pack of 25.

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