Stories of Impact

5 Questions for "Pathology to Power" Professor Sarah Skeels

by Liza Yeager '17, Storyteller for Good
February 15, 2015

Sarah Skeels is a professor, an activist, and a world-class sailor. In her popular course "Pathology to Power: Disability, Health, and Community," she teaches students to think critically about how disability fits into the world around them. But before they learn to think about disability, they need to learn how to talk about it. 

Liza: How is Pathology to Power different from other public health classes?

Sarah: I always say at the beginning of the semester if that you’re here for Name That Disability then you’re in the wrong place. This class is about what does it look like to have this impairment and how does this impairment impact the way someone can live within their culture. How do we look at disability as something that is alongside everything else instead of something that constantly needs help and pity and charity? It never really helps anybody to feel sorry for them, it only really makes you feel good. That’s not helping anybody. Who cares if you feel sorry for anybody? What are you going to do about it?

What’s the first step to getting students to think about disability differently?

You know, it’s a process of learning how to talk about it. At this university we really know how to talk about LGBTQ and we know how to talk about women’s studies, maybe; we know how to talk about diversity in some ways. But people don’t know how to talk about disability. Just don’t. And it’s because they’re not exposed to it. I don’t think it’s a fault; it’s just a reality.

You can’t understand it if you can’t talk about it. And you can’t understand it if you don’t have opposing points of view, and the chance to listen and hear and say “I don’t agree with you, can you explain that more?” So we work very hard to create a space where students can do that. And it takes a very long time. It takes all semester.

What are some of the challenges of teaching students to talk openly? 

It’s frustrating to be in this higher space of education and have students want to be right all the time. When they learn that there’s different ways to talk about disability everybody gets really tight-lipped because they’re worried that they’re wrong and that they didn’t do it right. You know, there’s that pressure to get everything right at Brown. And when it comes to this topic? There isn’t a right answer. It’s just listen. And think about it. And look around.

Instead of doing a final exam, your students create community impact projects. Can you talk a little more about what those are and why you assign them?

I know from student papers that by the end of the semester they’re engaging in conversations with their friends, and their friends are pushing back – “Oh you’re being so PC.” And students feeling like “But I have to tell them!” So I had this idea: why don’t we do these community impact projects? Figure out where the gap of learning is here at Brown, and do an impact project. I don’t care what it is, just do it.

It’s these students trying to talk about disability on this campus. And not to talk about it in this really shy, reticent, I’m-embarrassed kind of way but in an empowered way, like “I really do know something about this and I’m finding that you don’t and I really think it’s important that you all understand.”

Students at first were like, “You want us to do what? I don’t know how to do this, you’re going to grade us all on one thing?” And I’m like, “Good Grief, stop worrying about the grade.” This stuff transcends a letter grade, this is about living in this world and looking at it critically and understanding how it works.

Do you think you’ll ever go back to giving a regular final exam?

I don’t want to give a final because that’s so dry, and it’s not the goal. The goal of this class is to learn how to have that conversation, to understand that in the end a person with a disability is a person first, and they also have something else. Not to deny – you can’t pretend somebody doesn’t have it, and you don’t need to pretend somebody doesn’t have it. Like, you have blonde hair, and I have gray hair. You have legs that work, I don’t. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have hopes and dreams. Our basic humanity is the same. We are both human beings, we both have a right to be here, we both have a right to live and love and just be in the world in the way we want to be.