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Modernism, Postmodernism and the Development of Disability Models

Modernism and Postmodernism, which began in the late-1950s and mid-1970s, have influenced the development of disability models. In this post, I introduce the similarities and differences between disability models in the late 20th century and explain how rehabilitation sciences mirror Modernism and Postmodernism.

Modernism and Postmodernism

Modernism began after World War II and gradually transformed into Postmodernism in the mid-1970s. Modernism arose from the Theory of General Relativity proposed by Albert Einstein. The formulas in the Theory of General Relativity provide a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time (Synge, J. L., 1960). After Einstein published the Theory of General Relativity, the society started to embrace “universalism” and believe that “truth” only exists in facts.

The limitations of Modernism had led to the development of Postmodernism.  Postmodernism, in contrast to Modernism, favors pluralism, particularism, and diversity. Postmodernism places emphasis on subjective experience and the empowerment of human being (Moxley, D. P., 1995).

The development of disability models follows a similar trajectory

There is a similar trajectory in the development of disability models. The Nagi model, which is thought to be the first disability model, originated in 1965 (Altman, B. M., 2001). The Nagi model is a typical disease model which defined pathology as an interruption in “normal” body process. The author built the Nagi model with dualist terminologies, such as normal and abnormal. In 1980, the International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH) model proposed that disability is the result of an “abnormality” of body structure and function (Johnston, M., & Pollard, B., 2001). Researchers had critiqued Nagi and ICIDH models for the focus on diseases and blurred definitions of “normality.”

In the early 21st century, the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF) was developed to provide a framework and united taxonomy in health sciences. In ICF, we no longer see the “normality” concepts. Instead, there are complex mechanisms and terminologies used in the framework, such as the 6 inter-correlated concepts in the ICF.

Modernism, Postmodernism, and disability models in rehabilitation sciences

From the Nagi model to the ICF, the way disability was defined changed from linear to multi-directional, from dichotomous to a spectrum, and from dualist to pluralist, This change echoes the change from Modernism to Postmodernism. Modernism views a person as an object, thus treating disability as a disease which needs to be cured and normalized. Postmodernism views a person from many perspectives, including economic, social, political, and historical status.

The most popular disability framework, ICF, employs the spirit of Postmodernism. But to some degree, it still utilizes Modernism principles.  ICF tries to present the dynamics of subjective behaviors and experiences, and its decentralization equally emphasized all the concepts. Nevertheless, the systematic coding scheme used in ICF and the intention to develop united taxonomy show dualist and universalism, which are Modernism perspectives.

Future suggestions

From the development of disability models, we can see the evolution of thinking in rehabilitation sciences. However, there are a few questions needed to be answered. First, the nature of pluralism makes it harder to reach a consensus of disability models. With the growth of integrated models, is it necessary to use a specific model as a guiding principle? How do we decide which disability model should be followed by law legislators and stakeholders? Second, disability models are influenced by historical progress and people’s beliefs.  How can we think independently to refine the definition of disability?  Could we build a disability model that is based on the advantages of both Modernism and Postmodernism? Third, from the Nagi model to the ICF, scholars still use unified terminologies and apply a dualist principle to explain disabilities. While we put too much emphasize on terminologies and definitions in disability models, do we leave enough rooms for diversity and evolutionary?

Altman, B. M. (2001). Disability definitions, models, classification schemes, and applications. Handbook of disability studies, 97-122.
Garland-Thomson, R. (2002). Integrating disability, transforming feminist theory. NWSA Journal, 14(3), 1-32.
Johnston, M., & Pollard, B. (2001). Consequences of disease: testing the WHO International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities and Handicaps (ICIDH) model. Social Science & Medicine, 53(10), 1261-1273.

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