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A Fresh Approach to Disability

Linking liberal arts to medical sciences

By Dana Goldman

Story Photo

Associate Professor of Anthropology Aaron Stutz examines bones with Sierra Weiss 18C and Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Bruce Greenfield.

The concept for last spring’s course was ambitious, for sure: Bring together undergraduate students on two campuses virtually for the same class. Have professors of physical therapy and anthropology collaborate on a syllabus focused on disability in a way that is interdisciplinary and interactive. See what sort of connections emerge.

The course, Disability, Resilience, and the Mortal Self, was the result of a university-wide effort to connect Emory graduate programs with liberal arts learning. Members of Emory’s Division of Physical Therapy Program collaborated on the course with Aaron Stutz, PhD, an associate professor of anthropology based at Emory’s Oxford campus. The class was one of four selected and funded by Emory’s Coalition of Liberal Arts this past year.

“The intent was to explore with students how elusive the concept of disability has been as different generations have struggled to define it in juxtaposition to concepts of normalcy, ableism, and deviance,” says Bruce Greenfield, PhD, associate professor of physical therapy and one of the course’s instructors. Unlike typical physical therapy classes, this course was focused on helping undergraduates gain an interdisciplinary understanding of disability—including its intersections with ethics, religion, anthropology, and rehabilitation.

Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Sarah Blanton, DPT, NCS, says that this sort of teaching and learning has long been needed. “There has been this historical separation between disability studies and rehabilitation,” she explains. “We’re using this class as grounds to begin a process of integration, exploring the complex spectrum of work in disability studies.”

In addition to group discussion and narrative reflection, the course included visits to Emory labs focused on disability research as well as discussions with scholars of disability studies and people living with disabilities. It also included looking at fossilized bones 
to try to understand how ancient civilizations dealt with healing.

Stutz was sold on the idea of the course from the start. “This seemed to be an innovative and creative way to bring people together from different parts of the university,” says Stutz. 
“We hoped it would be an effective learning experience and would have lasting impact on curiosity, effective communication, passion, drive, concern about social issues, human health and environmental issues, and ethics writ large.”

Jack Hester 19C was a student in the class and identifies as someone with a disability—in his case a series of physical issues that include a short right leg and scoliosis. He wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the class and was pleasantly surprised. “This class reaffirmed my interest in examining topics in medicine, especially about disabilities, from a humanities-based perspective,” he says.

Sierra Weiss 18C signed up for the class because of her long-standing interest in disability studies and advocacy efforts. “It was a unique opportunity to participate in group learning and talk with experts in the field who look at disability with different points of view,” she says. “Prior to the course, I knew disability studies was an interdisciplinary field but didn’t realize how multidimensional it truly is.”

Based on the course’s success, Emory’s Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE) has decided to fund a version of the course for graduate students for 2017. Donna Troka is CFDE’s associate director. “The topic is so timely,” she says. “There is a lot of exciting work on disability happening on Emory’s campus right now so we really want to support this.”

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