ISEC 2005

Inclusive and Supportive Education Congress
International Special Education Conference
Inclusion: Celebrating Diversity?

1st - 4th August 2005. Glasgow, Scotland

about the conference

Embodied Ontology Model: A Way Forward

Guy Mcilroy
Deaf Education, Specialised Education
School of community and Community Development
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
South Africa, Private Bag 3, WITS, 2050
Tel/fax: (011) 717-8339 cell 083-991-6384


A paradigm shift in Disability Studies is occurring where the dividing line between able and disabled is being questioned. As Shakespeare argues: “there is no qualitative difference between disabled and non-disabled people because we are all impaired in some form, some more than others” (Shakespeare, 2002; 27). This position precedes earlier work by Sutherland (1981:18) where he argues forcefully that ‘we must demolish the false dividing line between ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’ and attack the whole concept of physical normality. It is from this point that Shakespeare moves the argument forward in that:

we have to recognize that disablement is not merely the physical state of a small minority of people, it is the ‘normal condition of humanity’. The myth of the normal/perfect person (read: un-impaired/disabled) is unsustainable since categorizing into ‘normal’ is arbitrary and subjective (who decides who is normal, and valuable?). Acceptance of the ubiquity of impairment and frailty reveals an essential connection between impairment and embodiment (Shakespeare, 2002: 26- 28).

 We are our body, with all of its imperfections and impairments. Instead of separating the experience of our body from personal impairment/disability, now is the time to see oneself as a ‘person with a disability’ as opposed to a ‘disabled person’. In terms of language, this is not a new development. The politically inoffensive term ‘person with a disability’ has been used by society to encode a non-discriminatory attitude. What is substantially different is the recognition that it is an inherent condition of our humanity that everyone has impairments as well as a personal narrative of their struggles of life in their physical body. To take the argument further: where does disability start and impairment end? Instead of a dichotomy of the social model as before, embodied ontology refers to a spectrum of positions of belonging.


To clarify the concepts, ‘ontology’ is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of reality refers to the status of being (Oxford Dictionary) in which a person exists whether able-bodied or disabled. To rephrase the concept would be to suggest that ontology deals with the issues pertaining to reality specifically living with disability, this leads embodied ontology as an incorporation of the reality of ones disability within a complex social network The central position of the embodied ontology as a social theory is that there are not two separate and distinct ontological statuses of being: ‘able’ or ‘disabled’, but rather there is a holistic integration/synthesis of embody-ing ourselves within our disability/impairment.        

While all living beings are impaired in some way, Shakespeare (2002:28) reminds us that we are not all oppressed because of our impairment. Rather it is society that attempts to define and categorize people according to their ‘disability’ and treat them accordingly if this is allowed to happen.   While social rights have been effective in raising awareness of barriers and discrimination, not all disabled people are willing to ‘come out’ and be identified as an ardent political activist. Liggett (1988:271) highlighted the dilemma that even amongst the politically active; the price of being heard is understanding that it is the disabled who is speaking. There is a powerful stigma attached to the label of ‘disabled’ which limits disabled people from seeking access to a mainstream identity, according to Shakespeare (2002:20). Standing out as a disabled person, as defined by the medical and social models carries a cost to ones identity of developing a ‘false consciousness’ or ‘internalized oppression’(Corker, 1996:194, Wrigley, 1996: 225-230). On the whole, Deaf persons and the Deaf community has been disempowered and considered by the majority hearing community as an insignificant minority resulting in passive acceptance of an inferior status and an internalized sense of inadequacy. Subsequently the quest for being normal and ordinary is more important than constructing their identity around their impairment (medical model) or defining themselves in terms of the disability political movement (social model). It is hypothesised that the middle ground between conservative medical model, and the liberal-minded social model, wherein the disabled and able-bodied dichotomy merges into a new understanding of identity.

There is a shift from the rational modernist philosophical context; within which the medical and social models operate, to the post-modernist perspective. Teer-Tomaselli (1996) noticed two significant trends of a post-modern society: there is a decline in the value of the state as the primary political and economic structure. This means that both the medical and social models are being challenged by the decline of power of states over citizens and the rise of ‘economic and cultural globalization’ (Teer-Tomaselli, 1996: 4). The second trend is that the previous emphasis on class as a marker of identity is being replaced by increasing tolerance of difference and cultural relativism through ethnic, religious, cultural and lifestyle identities (1996: 10) and the rise of the politics of identity. The Post-modernist philosophers, in particular Derrida (1967) and Foucault (1972), have expressed scepticism of the simple binary oppositions (for example: abled and disabled) that have characterized Western metaphysics.


 As a result, the way in which identity is defined has been changed by post-modernist thought. Shakespeare asserts that disability is a post-modern concept as people have a choice about how they see themselves (Shakespeare, 2002: 22) with disability an integral part of ones self. In other words a person is not defined essentially and rigidly by their disability which tended to occur within the medical and ironically the social model but recognize that their disability is an important part in the fluid construction of identity. This is an important departure from the medical and social models’ insistence in defining identity fundamentally in terms of ones disability. To give an example; a person who is an young, unmarried, black, female, Deaf South African will have different identities in different social situations (such as at work, or at family gatherings, or as a mother in which she switches from using only voice to an amalgam of voice and signs to Sign Language to match with communication needs and culture of persons she meets). This allows a person to be simultaneously situated in a range of positions and move fluidly between identities. This is quite unlike the antagonistic position of identity between the medical or social models. It is not a case of identity being more essential than culture (medical model) or of ones culture taking precedence over identity (social model). Rather there is a possibility for an inter-dependant relationship between both self and culture provided that neither perspective tries to oppress the other. It is my view that a strong sense of identity and culture is necessary to avert the battle for placement or displacement. Thus the recognition of an integration of multiple identities is a crucial and complex process for self-development.


The embodied ontological model promotes an interdependent and synergistic perspective which stresses the capacity to engage with a globalised world with multiple identities while maintaining and developing a core sense of identity and culture. Taking the earlier example of the young Deaf girl mentioned earlier who leaves home to go to school, leaving behind anxious but proud parent. In time the traditions, culture, language of her family will be transmitted to her from which she has a sense of identity from her may choose. In this case the girl has two identities to which she belongs; a hearing family identity and a Deaf school identity and engages in a dialogue between these worlds; her family and also to the school.


The embodied ontological model is not positioning itself as a grand theory to explain disability in its entirety, but a narrative interpretation of how the world is experienced by disabled people, especially those who fall through the gaps between medical and social models. Many disabled people do not feel angry nor do they want to be political activists. Meanwhile, other people with disabilities choose not to accept their impairment and would prefer to find a cure and be reintegrated into mainstream society rather than join the world of the disabled. In between these two choices is the disabled person who seeks an ordinary life without centre-ing their identity on their disability as a Deaf person, but rather perceive of themselves as mothers, wives, business owners in their daily lives. The embodied ontology model positions itself as a ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’ (Ndebele, 1992; 434). From this perspective, there is a celebration of the ordinary lives that ordinary people live. To elaborate further, most people, disabled or not disabled want to be seen as normal, although different, and actively resist definition as disabled (Priestley, 1999). The desire to belong and to fit into society is a strong human need, especially amongst the Deaf community as deafness is an invisible communication focused disability that isolates Deaf persons behind walls of silence and the loneliness of exclusion. Sign Language restores communication and a sense of belonging and affirms the cultural identity of the Deaf person. Furthermore, the embodied ontological model opens up the use of bilingual/bicultural approach in Deaf Education through placing value on language and cultural needs of Deaf persons.  


At the core of the embodied ontological model is the understanding that each person has value and worth which is followed up in a mature society that supports everyone on the basis of the needs they have, not on the work they have done (Shakespeare, 2002; 18) which fits well with the post-colonialist perspective of reconciliation and dialogue between former oppressor and victim. Within the South African context this move towards emancipation from oppression consisted of granting voice to the previously voiceless. Shakespeare (2000:244) suggested that a feature of oppression is the loss of voice, including disabled persons. In this way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa provided a platform in which the shame, oppression and atrocities experienced by the previously voiceless victims became embodied and expressed. This is the theme of the embodied ontological model’s stance of reconciliation through constructive dialogue and mutuality between the two parties. The embodied ontology model can be represented by the image of a body with each part contributing to the whole; a holistic unit, which suggests this metaphor has a foundation in the holistic systems theory in the social sciences. It is a point of interest that Harcombe (1993) observed that systems theory has embraced a more comprehensive and inclusive eco-systemic approach to specialized education. There is a theoretical development in American sociological thought lead by Andrew Nilsson (2003) termed the ‘Bio-Ecological Model’ which mirrors the systemic approach to social structures and which refers to a complex network of social relations within the larger structure of society.   

Since this model favours an integration of personal identity and cultural identity, schools for the Deaf are therefore allowed to preserve their cultural identity of the Deaf while fitting into dominant hearing culture. Recognition of difference, or to use Wrigley’s term:   ‘otherness’ is crucial for minority groups in negotiating their place to ‘belong’ in the diverse cultural landscape (Wrigley, 1996: 266). Yet there is considerable resistance or social inertia to acceptance of any form of difference within society. Probing into the issue of otherness, Shakespeare (2003:28) notes that the root cause of hostility between disabled and able-bodied persons may lie in the projection of non-disabled attitudes of vulnerability and weakness and mortality specifically onto disabled persons in the form of exclusion. Therefore, the separation of people into ‘able-bodied people’ and ‘disabled people’ allows the cycle of prejudice and mistrust which is evident in our society to continue. Since the medical model locates disability within the individual as a personal tragedy (Oliver, 1996: 34), that in effective distances able-bodied from the disabled persons. The converse position is taken by the social model which places blame for the oppression of disabled people on the social systems and structures that maintain the discrimination such as education. Subsequently, the social model strongly proposes that society must change and this often done activism that challenges the attitudes and social structures that continue to oppress disabled people.

 A third perspective on disability is emerging: the relinquishing of personal vulnerabilities and limitations, fears and locating oneself in relation to others upon an impaired/unimpaired continuum. For example, the dominant majority hearing community has a role in accepting responsibility for the discrimination of the Deaf persons through de-valueing attitudes towards Deaf persons. Equally so, as Bellin, ( 2000: 150) observed that young Deaf persons have a difficult transition through adolescence as well as a lack of positive identity in a dominant hearing community. The rigid boundary between both groups is evidence of the medical model/social model clash over theoretical territory, in which Paddy Ladd (2003)   identified language as the key battle in Deaf Education) Sign Language particularly in schools is the primary objective in this battle. Thus, the reconciliation between the extremist and contradictory positions of the medical and social models requires critical self–reflection/examination of root of their harmful attitudes, and alignment with mutually inclusive values. This is the start of a process of dialogue: with each other as Deaf persons; with accepting ones identity as a Deaf person; and with hearing persons. Therefore, the mandate of schools is the creation of an inclusive society which celebrates diversity as mirror of larger society.                   


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