Indiana University Northwest Now Offering Medical Humanities Minor

IUN logo topWhy is it that staircases are the norm in new construction when ramps would better accommodate every person? Why isn’t poor vision, which requires us to rely on eyeglasses, considered a disability? And why are disorders like autism defined and treated differently outside the U.S.?

By posing questions like these, Indiana University Northwest Associate Professor of History Jonathyne Briggs points out how long-held assumptions about disability shape our government policies and affect our civil rights.

He asks students to ponder these topics and more in his new online course, The History of Disability (HIST H303), one of five classes included in the curriculum for IU Northwest’s new medical humanities minor, available beginning this fall.

Medical humanities is an exciting, growing field that approaches health and medicine from a social, historical, cultural, and ethical perspective. “With a dual focus on arts and science, medical humanities prepares students to understand the diversity of patients and patient perspectives,” said Briggs.

Humanism for health care

Applicable to any role that touches the human side of health care, the medical humanities minor is an excellent option for students interested in entering health and medicine, and those professionals who already work in the health care field.

It is especially valuable for students interested in or working as medical providers and case managers; resident, rehabilitative and health care administrators and practice managers; IT professionals, financial and medical records managers, and more.

The interdisciplinary program combines two core courses, one introductory class and one senior-year capstone project, with electives from the College of Health and Human Services and the College of Arts and Sciences in health and communication, biomedical ethics, literature, and medical anthropology.

Topics explore:

  • the cultural history of the health care profession;
  • patient care as an art form and scientific endeavor;
  • human values and ethics in decision-making;
  • the changing role of the provider-client relationship;
  • bioethics, consumer advocacy and the health care system; and
  • representations of health care in the arts.

A personal connection

Briggs designed the History of Disability course and the medical humanities curriculum by drawing on his own research and personal experience as the father of a child on the autism spectrum.

A French historian, Briggs is currently working on a book about the history of autism in France. He found, through his research and in seeking services for his son, that there are vast differences in how individuals across the U.S., and worldwide, perceive and define autism differently.

This experience, along with his academic research on disabilities and culture, led him to see the broader topic of how we conceptualize disability as a culture, and how further exploring this would benefit those entering health professions.

“Disability is another form of diversity, but one which we don’t quite engage with in the same way as we do race or gender,” he said. “Although we are getting better at having more open discussions about race and gender, disability is something with which people are still embracing older ideas.”

It is also something that poses challenges for families and health care professionals who care for people with disabilities. As an example, Briggs points to his experience this summer, when he was invited to an academic workshop about the Global History of Disability. Held at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation’s only university exclusively serving deaf students, the privilege of attending was made possible by a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Briggs was looking forward to meeting with top experts in the field, including authors of the books he is using in the course. However, in trying to arrange for services for his son, who would be traveling with him, Briggs experienced medical insurance roadblocks that forced him to decline the invitation.

“This complication speaks to the very ideas I discuss in the course and reinforces the need for understanding the obstacles facing disabled people every day,” Briggs said.

Motivation to institute change

Rachel Siska, a 2017 history graduate, is pursuing a master’s degree in library and information science at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI). She appreciated learning how the disabled have been treated historically and was especially intrigued by the movements that ultimately resulted in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“When I think about how people with physical struggles were able to persuade Congress to pass laws to protect their civil rights, I am reminded that I also have an ability to institute change,” SIska said. “The History of Disability course serves to motivate students into fighting for change as there is still much to be done.”

Logan Krause, 20, of Bloomington, Ind., is working towards a double major in psychology and Germanic Studies.

Citing a general lack of understanding about disability, Krause said he wanted to learn more about the prejudices and general views of people with disabilities.

“I took away so much information on a subject that often gets pushed to the side or avoided,” he said. “I feel I have a better grasp of disability itself, and how ‘normal’ people view themselves versus the disabled in society.”

For more information on the medical humanities program, visit