Medical Humanities News

Impairment Through Humane Views: Disability and Society

Nov. 26, 2013

Thanks to the efforts of one Baylor professor, students can gain a new, theological perspective on disabilities and how society views them.

Dr. Jason Whitt, an adjunct faculty member of the Medical Humanities Program at Baylor, developed a new course called Disability and Society that is currently being held in the Marrs McLean Science Building. The course was officially offered to Medical Humanities students in the fall of 2013 and will continue to be offered every fall semester.

"In a sense, it's a course on disability, but it's a course on theological anthropology and how we understand being human," he said. "It encompasses a spectrum of things--prenatal care, postnatal care, end-of-life care, and care of those with special needs whether they be physical, mental, or a combination."

The course is not only a significant part of Baylor's overall mission as a Christian university, but it is also part of the strong Premedical Program. Students have the chance to ask and reflect on what it means to be human, a chance they may not have once they have entered the healthcare field.

"Medical schools can talk all about the deviation from norms, pathology, all of that," he said. "But they never stop to ask 'Is deafness a pathology? Is blindness a pathology?'"

The course aims to answer unexamined questions about healthcare professionals' decisions concerning general care, treatment, and end-of-life care for individuals with disabilities. By answering these questions, students can re-examine important responses concerning care for persons with special needs. Then, they can create their own answers to these issues with the focus of reflecting what having a disability means.

The course also aims to teach students to see people with disabilities as humans and to go against the current perceptions society has placed onto them.

"Often, they aren't seen as humans; they're seen as objects, an object of care," he said. "So hopefully, they are going to foster an understanding of people with disabilities."

Dr. Whitt hopes to foster this understanding by having students spend and hour with and talk, listen, and learn from a person with a disability or a relative caring for a person with special needs.

"It's fostering a virtue of attention," Dr. Whitt said. "How to listen to, hear from, be present with a person--that's particularly an important aspect of assisting with people with special needs."

Students will also have the chance to learn and to think about how society, religion, culture, and medicine impact our views on disabilities. Dr. Whitt hopes students will learn that reason, autonomy, and self-awareness are not the only aspects that make someone human.

"If that's what it means to be fully human, then we make all sorts of decisions about people with disabilities as less than that," he said. "That changes how we care or how we view the world or end-of-life care. If we begin to develop different accounts of what it means to be human, then it changes how we encounter people with disabilities."

Overall, Dr. Whitt said he hopes that discussing large, encompassing theological and philosophical questions about society's view on disability will attract students from all majors to the new course.

"I want it to be a class that lots of people can be interested in across the spectrum," he said. "It's not just for medical students because it affects all of us--how we view the world, resources, people and how we treat and engage them."


Maegan Rocio