University of Washington

Contact information

Joanne Woiak

Full-time Lecturer, Disability Studies Program, College of Arts & Sciences

Adjunct Lecturer, Bioethics & Humanities Department, School of Medicine

Office: Smith Hall 019

Box 353565
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-3565

I maintain the website: Eugenics and Disability: History and Legacy in Washington

Courses in UW Bioethics & Humanities, 2012-present

BH/DIS ST 421 History of Eugenics

Spring 2014, Tues & Thurs 1:30-3:50, SAV 166

Instructor: Joanne Woiak

Course description: The eugenics movement of the early 20th century proposed and implemented a variety of policies for “improving the hereditary quality of the race” by controlling human reproduction. The history of eugenics illustrates the interplay between social values and science and medicine, especially involving the social construction and meanings of human differences such as disability, race, class, gender, and sexuality. We will examine the development and authority of eugenic science; policies and practices such as sterilization and immigration restriction; public responses and connections to other social movements; and impacts on communities. By reading primary and secondary sources, we will address the intersections and tensions between the history of eugenics, disability studies, and bioethics. What are the legacies of eugenics for health care, scientific research, reproductive rights, and social justice? How is eugenics remembered and forgotten?

15% Participation

15% Leading discussion with written outline (group)

10% Paper #1 'What was eugenics' (due Apr 20)

10% Paper #2 'Response to campus event' (due June 6)

30% Essay #1 'Interpretations of the eugenics movement' (due May 18)           

20% Essay #2 and presentation 'Legacy of eugenics' (paper due June 1)

Learning goals:

  • Demonstrate knowledge of the history of the ideologies, goals, policies, and medical-scientific concepts associated with the eugenics movement.
  • Understand the significance of the interactions between science and society in the history of eugenics and human genetics.
  • Appreciate the core concepts of disability studies and apply them to history and bioethics.

Access & accommodations: The instructor is trying to create an inclusive learning environment. If you anticipate or experience barriers based on disability, you are welcome to meet with me to discuss options. We can work in conjunction with Disability Resources for Students (011 MGH, 206-543-8924/V, 206-543-8925/TTY, Please feel free to talk with me about any aspect of accommodations or accessibility.

All of the required readings are on this course website.

This class is a seminar in which discussion of the required texts is the principal method of instruction. You are expected to do all of the day’s required reading before the start of class and to be prepared with questions and informed opinions to talk about. Instruction will include some lectures and films. This course is designed to sharpen your practical skills in critical textual analysis, written and oral communication, and the synthesis of knowledge gained from the fields of history, science studies, disability studies, gender studies, and bioethics. You will also critically analyze primary documents from the early 20th century.

Your participation grade will be based on evidence of preparedness and the quality and consistency of your contributions to in-class discussion, as well as completion of in-class writing and small-group exercises. Missing classes will prevent your involvement in activities and adversely affect your grade. Participation involves expressing your own reasoned arguments, as well as constructively responding to classmates. Alternative assignments can be arranged for students who are uncomfortable speaking in class.

My aim is to create a respectful, open, anti-oppressive space where we can share ideas and speak our opinions. You are expected to show that you have analyzed the readings and that you are forming ideas about the themes of the course. You will be expected to critically examine your own beliefs in comparison with those of others and the approaches we’ll study.

Please also volunteer at least one day to act as official note taker for the class. Your outline of the day’s discussion topics will be posted on the website.

UW Introduction to Disability Studies, 2006-present

LSJ/CHID/DIS ST 230 Introduction to Disability Studies

Autumn 2013

Course website:

Lectures: M & W 10:00-11:20, MGH 241

Instructor: Joanne Woiak,

Quiz sections T & Th 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, 12:30 all in MGH 287

Course description: This is a survey of disability studies, a multi-disciplinary field that investigates, critiques, and enhances Western society’s understandings of disability. The course will introduce you to a critical framework for recognizing how people with disabilities have experienced disadvantages and exclusion because of personal and societal responses to their impairments. We will explore how disability activists and scholars have re-conceptualized disability from a more empowering social-political and human rights perspective, as an element of human diversity and a source of community. We will apply the core concepts of disability studies to analyzing selected issues in disability history, policy, culture, bioethics, and rights. Disability studies questions and connects established disciplines and draws on links between disability and other social categories such as gender, class, and race. It suggests new ways of thinking about difference, identity, justice, power, privilege, the body, and society. Credits for this course count towards the Disability Studies Minor and the Diversity Minor.


20% Participation in quiz section and lecture

20% Online reading responses and replies

10% 2 Short papers

30% Campus accessibility project

20% Media project


LSJ/CHID 332 Introduction to Disability Studies

Website for Fall 2011

Lectures Mon, Wed, Fri 10:30-11:20 in Savery 260. Quiz sections Tues and Thurs.

LSJ/CHID 332 Disability and Society: Introduction to Disability Studies

Syllabus (download in Word) for Winter 2010

Course description:This is a survey of Disability Studies, an interdisciplinary field that investigates, critiques, and enhances Western society’s understandings of disability and the social justice consequences. The course will introduce you to a critical framework for recognizing entrenched attitudes, barriers, and representations that stigmatize and discriminate against people with disabilities. We will interrogate how society generates and reinforces perceptions of disability as personal deficit and misfortune, and learn how the disability experience has been reinterpreted as a form of human variation and minority group status by the disability rights movement and by scholars in a range of disciplines. The readings, lectures, and assignments focus on analyzing the social, political, economic, architectural, cultural, and historical factors that shape the meanings of “disability.” We will explore the history of disability; disability rights activism; disability culture; disability public policy; arguments regarding quality of life, inclusion, and independence; perspectives on the roles of medicine and technology; theories of stigma and identity; analogies and differences between experiences of disability, race, and gender oppression; and portrayals of disability in the media. Credits for this course count towards the Disability Studies Minor and the Diversity Minor.

History of Human Differences, 2017

History of Human Differences (DIS ST /CHID/ LSJ 332)

Course website:


Course description:

“It is time to bring disability from the margins to the center of historical inquiry.” This course will explore Douglas Baynton’s idea that historical analysis should encompass not only the lives of disabled people but also the ways that disability as a category has influenced many forms of discrimination in American society. Images and language describing groups on the basis of features that align with a deficit model of disability have often been used in past and present political arguments, in order to discredit claims to citizenship and rights made by people of color, women, immigrants, LGBT people, and others. We will read scholarship from disability studies, feminism, queer theory, race and ethnic studies, and science studies that will help us to think critically about science and medicine in relation to the history of human differences.

Western societies have a long history of arguments for “biological determinism” that aim to naturalize social and economic differences among human groups. Unequal and hierarchal relations, especially based on racism and sexism, have been justified by scientific authority combined with negative ideas about disability. We will examine historical episodes in which groups were oppressed by having disability attributed to them, and episodes in which oppression of others was reinforced through strategies of distancing from disability. Claims about who’s “normal” and who’s not can harm communities and erase the experiences of those who hold multiply marginalized identities. Exposing and challenging such claims can foster solidarity and coalition-building for social justice.

Our work in this class will explore and advance the connections between the study of history, critiques of the social uses of biology and medicine, and the scholarly field of disability studies.


Learning objectives:

Understand the history of disability in connection with other minority communities.

Gain a theoretical background in the field of disability studies (DS).

Gain knowledge about the history of biological determinism, racism, and ableism, including the eugenics movement, the freak show, and psychiatry.

Apply critical analysis to the interactions between science, society, politics, and culture.

Develop skills in critical thinking and writing about diversity and intersecting identities.


Accessibility & Resources

Course access:

Please be fragrance free to make our classroom and the instructor's office more accessible to those with chemical sensitivity. For the health and well-being of community members with chemical sensitivity, do not wear scented products. For more information, see…/How-to-Be-Fragrance-Free-.pdf

There are informational links about scent-free policies and practices on the website of the ASUW Student Disability Commission  http://sdc.asuw.org

The instructor is trying to create an inclusive learning environment. If you anticipate or encounter barriers participating in this course or demonstrating your learning because of any aspect of how the course is taught, I encourage you to contact me as soon as possible so that we can discuss options for accommodations and/or modifications.

We can work in conjunction with Disability Resources for Students (011 Mary Gates Hall, 206-543-8924/V, 206-543-8925/TTY, Note that while this is directly applicable to students who are registered with DRS, you do not need to disclose a disability or provide an accommodations letter to discuss modifications. Please feel free to talk with me about any aspect of accommodations or accessibility.

Here are some campus writing resources that are available to students in this class:

Redesigning Humanity: Science Fiction & the Future of the Body, 2014 & 2016

Redesigning Humanity: Science Fiction & the Future of the Body (DIS ST / CHID / LSJ 332)

Course website:


Course description:

From Frankenstein to Brave New World to Gattaca and beyond, fictional works have speculated about the artificial creation, manipulation, and enhancement of human life. In this course, we will take science fiction (SF) seriously as a genre that utilizes unreal settings to mirror and critique contemporary society. We will interpret SF texts that depict human and nonhuman futures involving such sciences as eugenics, genetic engineering, reproductive technologies, neurobiology, and stem cell research. The course investigates the social and political functions of SF texts written between 1915 and 2010, which explore themes involving the contexts and consequences of biomedicine and biotechnology. Popular culture can contribute to public discourse about techno-scientific developments, social issues, and bioethical concerns. As SF author and critic Samuel R. Delany has asserted, SF is “a tool to help you think.” 

In particular, we will use science fiction to think critically about science in relation to human difference. And we will critique how SF has reflected and deployed mainstream attitudes and stereotypes about disability and other forms of diversity. Marginalized groups, such as communities of color and disabled people, have more recently intervened in the SF genre in order to “write ourselves into the future,” as novelist Octavia Butler put it. Our class focus will be on exploring and advancing the connection between SF and the scholarly field of disability studies (DS). Our analyses of themes around bioscience, disability, and other topics of importance in the SF stories will be supported by reading articles from DS, bioethics, history of science, and science popularizing. We’ll look at social constructions of disability and diversity today, as well as representations of how disabled bodies and neurodiverse minds might be conceived of in the future, as authors and readers create new meanings of accessibility, identity, community, family, justice, normal, and “human.”


Learning objectives:

Apply critical analysis to the interactions between science, society, and popular culture.

Gain a theoretical background in the field of disability studies (DS).

Identify the social functions and literary conventions of the science fiction (SF) genre.

Interpret and debate the themes SF conveys about biomedicine, technology, bioethics, diversity, disability, and humanity.

Develop skills in critical thinking about diversity and how disability intersects with other categories such as gender, sex, class, and race.

Sharpen skills in critical textual analysis and writing.



Sex and Disability, 2013 & 2015

DIS ST/CHID/LSJ 332 Sex & Disability, Winter 2013

T & Th 1:30-3:20, in Loew 102

Instructor: Joanne Woiak,

Course site:

Course description: This course will involve thinking about sex and disability together. In modern society, disability tends to be framed as “undesirable” and as central to the history and politics of binaries that create various “others.” Our work will focus on personal narratives and scholarly literature that ask practical and theoretical questions about how society predominantly understands sexuality, disability, and the relationship between them. We will examine some of the intersections between disability studies, a field that addresses disability as difference, and topics and approaches from gender, queer, and sexuality studies. The connections between disability and sex generate questions about the cultural meanings of the body, medicalization, reproduction, access, privacy, desire, privilege, and normalcy. We’ll study emerging scholarship, mostly written from disability studies perspectives, along with autobiographies, fiction, and films that represent the experiences of people with disabilities. Our approach to the material will emphasize the ways that ableism is interconnected with sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, and other systems of oppression.

Readings: The required textbook is Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, eds., Sex and Disability (Duke University, 2012). The required readings also include additional articles to be found on the course website. You will read one additional book of your choice, for the final paper.

Disability and Citizenship, 2012

LSJ 491 Topics in Rights: Disability and Citizenship: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Winter 2012, Course website:

This course explores the complex interplay between the meanings of disability and citizenship in United States law, society, and culture. Theories of citizenship are dynamic and contested, continually being reformulated in terms of rights and rights restrictions, political obligations, access to social and economic institutions such as education and welfare, and cultural inclusion. The field of disability studies (DS) contends that disability is socially constructed and intersects in important ways with other markers of human identity such as gender, race, and class. Historically, people with disabilities have been absent or marginal citizens, while today disability as a category of analysis is often marginalized in studies of citizenship, despite that fact that notions of the citizen as able, active, rational, and normal infuse our language, imagery, and laws.

            We read scholarship in political theory, history, sociology, law and policy, cultural studies, and DS that addresses questions about disability in liberal democracy and identifies the inter-relatedness of different groups’ struggles for citizenship status. These scholars show that attention to the history of exclusionary theories and practices, such as eugenics, immigration restriction, and commitment laws, as well as to the ways that social programs, rights, and justice for disabled people have been framed and theorized, might help to shift the spectrum of citizenship by challenging hegemonic assumptions about autonomy and normalcy, generating possibilities for activist alliances, and transforming our beliefs about who is a capable and deserving member of society.

            The aims of the course are to introduce students to the disability studies approach and how it can elucidate and widen citizenship debates that involve the interaction between legal rules, social identities, and cultural values.


TCSS 325 Computers, Ethics, and Society, 2012-2014

University of Washington, Tacoma

Institute of Technology

TCSS 325 A, Computers, Ethics, and Society

Spring 2014

Class meetings: Mon. & Wed. 10:20-12:25, in BHS 103

Instructor: Joanne Woiak

Office hours: By appointment, in KEY 202, preferably before or after class.

Course description: 

This course examines the influence of technologies in human affairs, focusing on how computer technologies embed particular ethical positions and have particular social effects. Even a simple choice such as whether a website includes features that are accessible to people with disabilities reflects an ethical choice about equality that has social and political implications.

This course will explore theories of ethics and the interactions between technology, policy, and society. We will examine developments in the use of computers that have broad social impacts and raise important moral questions. We will consider the kinds of evidence and arguments made for truth claims and ethical claims.

Technologies are designed for specific purposes, embody values, and are not neutral in their effects. Designers thus have ethical and civic responsibilities associated with their professional activities. Public policies (such as laws and regulations) are a main driver of technological and social development. In a democratic society, citizens are (in theory) informed about the policies under consideration and publicly deliberate about alternatives.

The key learning goals of the course are to help develop your communication, critical evaluation, and ethical reasoning skills as professionals and citizens. It is reading and writing intensive. You will be asked to evaluate sources, synthesize information, and deploy these in constructing reasoned policy arguments.

Student learning goals for this course:

  • Write coherent summaries of literature.
  • Identify principles of Western ethics that are embedded in or related to particular technological designs or technology policies.
  • Construct an ethical argument in support of a thesis.
  • Employ research literature to evidence descriptive and normative claims.
  • Describe some of the social, political, and economic consequences of technology use within particular contexts or cultures.

CSS program outcomes that this course supports:

  • Understanding professional, ethical and social responsibilities.
  • Skills at communicating with a range of audiences.
  • Ability to analyze the impact of computing on individuals, organizations and society, including ethical, legal, security and global policy issues.
  • Ability to recognize the need for and to engage in continuing professional development.


Writing about the readings  30% (5 short papers total)

Class participation & homework  10%

Public discussion and pre-discussion paper (group)      7.5%

Discussion facilitation and questions (group)  7.5%

Position paper

Version 1 (Apr 23, 10am)  5%

Version 2 (May 23, 11pm) and peer feedback (May 28, 10am)   15%

Oral presentation (June 2 or June 4)   5%

Version 3 (June 8, 11pm)   20%



Courses in UW Comparative History of Ideas, 2008-2010

CHID 270B Special Topics: History of Eugenics
Mon and Wed, 3:30-5:20, Savery Hall 137
Website for Autumn 2010

Course description: The eugenics movement of the early 20th century proposed and implemented a variety of policies for "improving the hereditary quality of the race." These ranged from educational efforts such as "fitter family contests" to oppressive measures such as immigration restriction and compulsory sterilization. The history of eugenics serves as an important case study in the interactions between social values and scientific research, as well as the social construction of human differences such as disability, class, race, gender, and sexuality. We will examine the science behind eugenics, legislation and other policies, sources of public support and opposition, transnational connections, and intersections between categories of people deemed "socially undesirable." We will address the persistence of some eugenics ideas and practices beyond WWII. This course has no prerequisites and is suitable for students in the humanities and the sciences.

CHID 270 Special Topics: History of Eugenics
Website for Autumn 2009

Courses in UW Department of History, 2001-2008

HIST 290 Special Topics: History of Eugenics (cross-listed with CHID 270)

HIST 490 Topics in History: Biology, Society, and Human Diversity
Website for Winter 2007

HIST 311 Science in Civilization: Antiquity to the 1600s
Website for Autumn 2005

HIST 310 Science and Religion in Historical Perspective
Syllabus (download in Word) for Winter 2004

HIST 498 Colloquium in History: History of Eugenics in American Society
Syllabus (download in Word) for Winter 2003

HSTEU 475 England in the Twentieth Century
Syllabus (download in Word) for Winter 2002

Courses in UW Bothell Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, 2003-2007

BIS 384 Literary and Popular Genres: The Social Functions of Science Fiction
Website for Autumn 2007

BIS 393 Scientific Revolutions
Syllabus (download in Word) for Summer 2006

BIS 393 Redesigning Humanity: Science Fiction and the Future of the Body
Website for Winter 2006

BIS 393 Socio-Politics of Science
Syllabus (download in Word) for Spring 2005

BIS 393 Biology and Society
Website for Winter 2005

BIS 484 Problems in Interdisciplinary Science: Sexual Science: Historical and Critical Perspectives
Website for Autumn 2004


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Send questions about this workspace to Joanne Woiak.