UT student explains social oppression and disabilities at international conference

Sandeep Bhakta

At 14, Shruti Patil was watching “Grey’s Anatomy.” At 20, she’s delivered a presentation at an internationally recognized conference discussing health and the humanities.

On March 28, Patil, a neuroscience and English sophomore, presented at the 2019 International Health Humanities Consortium in Chicago about oppression and disability, connecting them to the interdisciplinary field of health humanities.

Patil said in a clinic, a patient is more than a symptom. Instead of being overly concerned with objective facts, Patil said it’s important to focus on an individual’s humanity.

“Literature does a great job of teaching how people experience illness,” Patil said. “When you’re looking at people at their worst times or their best, you have to have an understanding of people and what going through illness is like, and (literature) can help provide that.”

She used the first drafts and outlines of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel “Never Let Me Go” to examine how his work can represent a study in disabilities. Patil details the discrimination that comprises the oppression of individuals in a fictional society seeking to eradicate disability and illness in the context of the health humanities.

Pauline Strong, director of the Humanities Institute at UT, said the health humanities utilize media such as art and literature to help conceptualize what it means to be healthy.

“People have been concerned about their health dealing with illness and dealing with mortality throughout time,” Strong said. “So being able to look at the breadth of ways people have dealt with suffering gives us perspective on our own condition.”

UT postdoctoral teaching fellow Travis Lau specializes in disability studies and is one of Patil’s professors. He said Patil, like health humanities, is breaking boundaries with her work.

“She is extremely open to the perspectives that really undermine her own training as a STEM major,” Lau said. “I teach the racist, sexist and ableist histories of her discipline, but she is so self-motivated and driven to do her own research on the insights of different fields.”

Patil said in many cases, the medical model can be the villain in a story, and this is what leads her to ask questions about what science is good science.

“Should we be investigating ways to ‘fix’ autism or Alzheimer’s if one perpetuates the normative standards that disabilities studies hates?” Patil said.

Patil said these questions inspired her to pursue the project and ultimately present at an international conference.

“It was fascinating for me to know that there were other people thinking about these ideas,” Patil said. “So I sent my (project’s abstract) to the Health Humanities Consortium, and it was accepted just like that.”

For the future, Patil will continue balancing both her science- and humanities-related coursework. Following her panel, she hopes to continue her project and explore academic writing with the goal of publication. Patil also wishes to delve deeper into the world of health humanities and its necessity to society.

“The health humanities helps to re-establish what’s important — that (humanity) is built on the arts,” Patil said. “Everything may be made of atoms and molecules and science may put that together, but (humanity) is different because we have art. We have those vast collections of literature that makes us special and keeps us human.”