Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Disability and Samoa

  • Juliann Anesi
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_454



Certainly not all disabilities are the same, and societal reactions vary greatly from one disability to another. Likewise, disability is defined in various ways, depending on who is defining the term and for what purpose (Taylor 2001). In the US context, it is only since the last century that society used disability to socially construct or refer to a distinct class of people. Historically, disability has been used as a cover for inability and as a reference to legally impose limitations on rights and power dynamics. The genealogies of understanding bodies with disabilities as “broken” are greatly influenced by the medical approach to disability. Such approach holds that disability results from an individual person’s physical or mental limitations and is largely unconnected to the social or geographical environments. Whereas, the social model views disability as a consequence of environmental, social, and attitudinal barriers that prevent people with impairments from participating in society.

Disability is constructed in a similar way in Samoa, an independent State in the Pacific, where it is understood as ma’i, or sickness. Ma’i is a term that describes all sicknesses, as well as someone with a disability or impairment. This approach to disability is also influenced by the medical model, which understands disability as a physical or mental impairment of the individual and its personal and social consequences. The medical model places the source of the problem within a single impaired person and concludes that solutions are found by focusing on the individual. The medical model assumes that the first step solution is to find a cure by making disabled people more “normal.” In contrast, the social model of disability is understood as a relation between an individual and her social environment. Accounting for the geographical, social, and political views, which consider the locations and positionality of disabilities, can expand our constructions of differences. As Erevelles (2011) suggests, the need to link disability to discussions of the economic and social transformations occurring at the global framework is affected by colonialism, postcolonialism, and neoliberalism and the impacts of these transformations on disabled bodies. Hence, connecting such complex understandings of disability and sickness to Samoa’s historical relations as a nation to other Western countries is a crucial part of the conversation. Noting unequal colonial relations between the Pacific Islands and Western countries are critical in the dialogue of abilities and disabilities. Moreover, understanding disability from a Samoan context can be a potential model for thinking about various cultural meanings and interpretations of disability in society.

Samoan History

Samoa’s long history is interwoven in oral traditions, legends, songs, recorded writings, and dances traced to certain gods. Samoa’s indigenous institutions of governance are associated with certain paramount titles and traditional political districts. Even with Samoa’s contact with the non-Polynesian world in the eighteenth century, the matai (chiefly) system of governance continues to maintain authority throughout the districts. This section briefly addresses the indigenous reference points and colonial histories that influence Samoan understandings ma’i or sickness and disability.

In the 1800s, the German, American, and British commissions were economically invested in copra, cacao plantations, and shipping ports. As a tripartite government, these governments existed over a group of small islands. The three powers of government generally allied with opposing chiefly factions, which often fueled civil unrest (Meleisea 1987). The disputes among the three governing powers and the local Samoans never seemed to end. Consequently, the Treaty of Berlin in 1889 divided the Samoan islands into two halves: the eastern and western islands. The Samoan archipelago was split into two regions by the United States and Germany, each of which formed separate political systems. The eastern islands were placed under the US rule, which is currently known as American Samoa, an unincorporated territory of the USA. For the western islands, they were placed under separate German and New Zealand administrations. The German colonial administration ruled Western Samoa from 1900 to 1914. New Zealand ruled Western Samoa under five different military administrators from 1914 to 1962. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, military forces occupied Samoa and instituted a military administration. A League of Nations mandate placed the country officially under New Zealand administration in 1920. On January 1, 1962, Western Samoa, today called Samoa, became an independent State and the first UN trust territory in the Pacific to decolonize and become sovereign (Meleisea 1987).

Ma’i or Sickness

To understand disability in the Samoan context of sickness, one must examine the area’s dominant medical institutions: indigenous medicine as explained in the fa’a Samoa (Samoan way of life) and Western medicine. Thus, analyzing how these longstanding institutions inform ableist, hegemonic, and economic policies that define normalcy (Davis 2006) and/or productive citizenry (Campbell 2009) reveal how ma’i (sickness) is underscored by ableism, nondisabled bodies as the normal human condition. Issues of translation and linguistic nuances between English and Samoan are central to conversations about disability and sickness. Ma’i can also allude to someone’s illness because of misdoing. For example, some Samoans believe that a spirit or an ancestor possesses people when social convention has been violated. Traditional social conventions such as changing dress codes, changing attitudes by young people, challenges to the role of the elders and chiefs, and diminishing adherence to family duties can result in frustration and confusion, and, at times, possession. Although there is no direct translation of the word disability in Samoan, the word ma’i (sickness) is one term used to refer to people with disabilities. Sickness does not fully capture the complexities of disability, but the ideologies behind calling a disabled person “sick” are very much linked to medical understandings of disability.

Systems of Healthcare

Samoans use two systems of healthcare services: Western and local medicine. Most people in Samoa use the services of a local taulasea (healer) to remedy their illness. The taulasea believe that Samoan culture dictates humans to live within three worlds: a natural world, social world, and spiritual world. The human condition and healing is at any one time influenced by relations between individuals and the natural, social, and spiritual realms. The desired state is that of harmonious relations between humans and each of these worlds (Macpherson and Macpherson 1990). Many Samoans believe that when such equilibrium exists (among the natural, social, and spiritual world), so too, will Samoans experience a feeling of wellbeing. However, when such logic is applied to people with disabilities, they are often represented as subhuman, shameful, special, holy, and pitiful. These dehumanizing ideas can also pertain to medical care as normative institutions in which marginalized communities are forced to abide by in order to restore the standard of normal communities. For Samoa’s case, indigenous and Western philosophies of healing are institutions with different set of beliefs and practices that have coexisted despite geopolitical, social-political, and postcolonial histories. Most Samoans believe that indigenous medicine is not a single unified body of belief and practice. In addition, Samoans share a set of beliefs about the nature and causes of sickness according to their beliefs about their environment. Another set of beliefs about the nature and causes of particular illnesses also differs significantly, in both depth and content, from one healer to the next (Macpherson and Macpherson 1990). The coexistence of western and indigenous beliefs, despite both being built on different epistemological foundations and practices, continues to inform how Samoans understand ma’i (sickness). Historically, western medicine and health programs were implemented in Samoa in limited ways and in a manner where Samoans controlled some degree of their practices. For instance, in order for public health programs to be implemented into villages, the permission of the mata’i (chief) must first be obtained. Thus, the making of western medicine depended heavily on the cooperation of Samoans. In fact, this gave some control over the form of these practices and the terms on which they were offered within villages (Macpherson and Macpherson 1990).

Indigenous Care

Herbal medicine and fofo (massage) were used to assess the illness or spiritual mishap (Whistler 1992). Even when Samoans leave their homelands, they maintain these attitudes towards disability as a sickness. For Samoans living in the Los Angeles, California area, ma’i aitu (spiritual sickness) and ma’i valea (mental illness) are common “sicknesses” in which remedies are sought (Lazar 1985, p. 163). The taulasea also specialize in illnesses caused by the aitu (spirits), supernatural powers, and fofo (Lazar 1985). The notion of “fixing” or “curing” an illness came with the introduction of Christian notions of healing and prayers, many of which added to the practices of the taulasea. In short, the taulasea attempts to make right whatever was making the spirits restless or angry, thereby helping the sick and bringing balance to the Samoan worlds of the living and nonliving. This organizing of spiritual healing and social structures again reiterates the idea that there is a standard to maintain with those outside of these boundaries taking up the category of the other. People with disabilities continue to occupy the category of the “other” in this structural organization because their condition appears “incurable.” Or as some elders in the community convey, “It is God’s will” that one is disabled, reflecting histories of Christian missionary influence on suppressing traditional religious beliefs. Today, Samoa is politically and religiously independent, and churches such as the Congregational and Methodist are more inclined to acknowledge the role of taulasea’s pre-Christian views and practices. Likewise, active members of various churches are now openly recognizing that they visit traditional spiritual healers. Taulaseas are also active church members while simultaneously acting as mediums for pre-Christian divinities and familial ancestors. Most of the healing for illnesses was traditionally done by a taulasea. What is noteworthy is that most healers do not consider their models as less effective than those of Western medicine. From a taulasea’s view, each exists to understand and manage different types of illness. For healers, the favorable outcome of their healing practices is their success in restoring harmony among the worlds we live, not in how they are integrated or structured (Macpherson and Macpherson 1990).

From a Western view, however, the medical model has historically represented people with disabilities as “broken” and in need of “fixing” or “curing.” Medicine has often relied on the deficit-model of disability. The historical goal has been to make the human race perfect by eliminating people with undesirable characteristics from the population (Kluth 2006). The challenge with such medical practices is that it fosters overt and covert eugenic ideologies that seek to control and eliminate certain undesirable populations. The importance placed on the taulasea healing practices was initially questionable with the arrival of Christian missionaries, who often equated a taulasea’s work to witchcraft or “savage” practices. From a taulasea’s view, Western medicine practices have coexisted in Samoa since colonization. From a Western medicine perspective, most medical professionals consider taulasea healing practices as “primitive” or unscientific. Therefore, understanding indigenous causality concepts, including the distinctions between supernatural and natural etiological categories of disease, is so important when talking about disability in Samoa. As disability studies scholars Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky (2001) astutely points out, a sociopolitical or minority-group model approach to disabilities, which investigate the relationships between meanings, attributed to bodies and the organization of power in society is an important focus. This means that an investigation of the body can illuminate its complexities, its politics, its lived experience, and its relation to subjectivity and identity (Wendell 1996). It is possible that this claim of understanding the body and the institutions, which define and redefine it, can bear light on a more inclusive understanding of disability.

Global Realms of Disability

In addition to cultural understandings of disability in Samoa, geopolitical, sociopolitical, and postcolonial components play a role in disability notions. Here, I point to Helen Meekosha’s (2011) work on situating disability in a global context, which requires an analysis of power relations between the global North and global South. She relates that based on geographical location, such relations and power dynamics also produce, sustain, and profit out of disability (p. 668). Meekosha argues that there has been a one-way transfer of ideas and knowledge from the global North in the field of disability studies, thus constituting a form of scholarly colonialism that reinforces a production of impairment in the global South. Work in disability studies fails to mention the imperialistic, militaristic, and colonial processes responsible for disabling millions of people across the globe. Disability and poverty are interrelated, as the fundamental business of colonization involved structured, cultural, economic, and political domination. People from northern European metropoles usually impose such colonial structures over peoples from the south. Likewise, Nirmala Erevelles (2011) suggests the analysis of disability be framed within political economy located in a Marxist claim of historical materialist concept of labor – central to the shaping of social production of life. Besides, the historical materialism seeks to expose the concrete material conditions that have produced these attitudes and meanings systems about disability. In addition, a materialist analysis suggests the (re)inserting of the category of disability into social history which tends to mark the shifts, the changes, and the movements that coincide with historic construction and economic structures. Hence, understandings of disability and ma’i (sickness) in Samoa are not straight forward, and factors such as colonization, indigenous and western medicines must always be interrogated based on these contexts and historical and cultural legacies.


Thus, Samoan understandings of sickness or disability are also influenced by ideologies of ableism and normalcy. Fiona Campbell (2009) defines ableism as a form of discrimination based on the perception that being able-bodied is the normal human condition. Hence, the production of ableism and the sites of resistance to norms and practices are essential to discussing disability in these contexts. Disability is a social construct with relations between physical and intellectual impairment that is neither fixed nor a permanent status. These statuses are closely interconnected with social, cultural, and economical milieu. Hence, the relationship between impairment and disability are fluid and rethinking how disability is measured or counted must be accounted for. More aptly, understanding the disabled body forces one to return to the concept of the norm, the normal body, or compulsory able-bodiedness as having a body free from disability and assuming able-bodied as natural or a desired identity (McRuer 2006). Since most writings about disability have focused on the disabled person and construction of disability, another focus by disability studies scholar has shifted to focus on the construction of normalcy. A common assumption is that the concept of the norm has always existed and, but the idea of the norm is less a condition of human nature than it is a feature of a certain society. As the social process of disabling arrived with industrialization in the USA and with the set of practices and discourses that are linked to the eighteenth and nineteenth century notions of race, gender, criminality, nationality, and sexual orientations (Davis 1995). The term “normal” continues to filter into various aspects of our lives and a configuration that arises in a particular historical moment.

Drawing on the analytical framework of taulasea medical beliefs (Macpherson and Macpherson 1990), historical materialism of disability (Erevelles 2011), the concept of ableism (Campbell 2009), and compulsory able-bodiedness (McRuer 2006) to explore how the body, particularly the disabled body from the global South, is constituted within the social relations of production and consumption of transnational capitalism. These frames situate how concepts of ableism, sickness, and oral histories move across borders and cultures as a means of reinforcing normative structures that are perceived as orderly and appropriate. Lastly, understanding the translations of disability and sickness across communities can foster reciprocal conversations and learning.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA