Engelhard Professor Sylvia Önder’s Reflection on the “Care House” Concept

Engelhard Faculty Fellow Sylvia W. Önder, Teaching Professor in Anthropology, Head of the Turkish Program, and Core Faculty in the Disability Studies Program reflects on teaching with Care Houses in her courses.

Amidst the shock of having the Spring 2020 semester interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we entered a period in which everything seemed uncertain. My ANTH 256 Disability and Culture class (an Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning course and core course in the Disability Studies Minor for undergraduates) has always been intentionally designed to increase learning access options for all students, but I knew that going completely online would raise new access issues—including from students who had never before thought about accommodations. On the other hand, for years, the disability community had been calling for more serious study of how online classrooms can include more types of learners: this was a chance to experiment with some of those access opportunities. 

In preparation for the Fall of 2020, I designed a syllabus that made some explicit statements about access¹, built upon insights from the disability community, featuring work from Margaret Price, Ph.D. The course had two required texts: 1) Criptiques (edited by Caitlin Wood, 2014) which collects a series of first-person accounts from disabled authors, and 2), Care Work, by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018), which captures a first-person narrative by a thought-leader and activist from the disability community. 

For my course’s group project, I wanted to “mash the two together” by asking students to imagine the type of caring communities proposed by Piepzna-Samarasinha by creating “Care Houses” that would be imagined as housing four students from the class and four authors from Criptiques

First Iteration 

Initially, Care Houses were modeled on Piepzna-Samarasinha’s idea of Care Webs – intentional networks of disabled people who came together in mutual aid because the systems which often go under the name of “care”—as in “health care” and “foster care”—often are woefully inadequate to address their actual needs.

I formed the Care Houses in a randomizing process that combined the goal of having a student from each level (first-year, sophomore, junior, senior) in each house and not having two students from the same major in any single house. They were told that each house will have four students from Disability and Culture “living” in it, and four other people, including all of the authors in Criptiques.

Then I asked each group to choose a name and discuss which of the two sorts of Care Houses they would be: and “intentional house” based upon attention to a certain type of disability (physical disability, neurodivergence, learning disability, etc.) or a “chance house” which would mix together people in a random selection, similarly to how families often combine people with differing abilities. Students were given time to reflect on their own abilities and differences with the question of what they would feel comfortable sharing in conversations with their Care House.  The Care Houses picked names (mostly silly and food-related), and discussed the authors from Criptiques that they might get as “housemates.”  

The first group homework was to divide up the work of researching what access needs the housemates have. If a student had access needs themselves, a housemate who did not share them had to research it. They were instructed on how to take field notes and create a group folder or document to share the research. Contacting a housemate to get first-hand information about access needs was promoted as an excellent way to contribute to the research, but only after an initial scan of the existing literature.

As the students sat in front of screens in places distant from each other, they began to imagine a shared living space that would enhance their lives and foster their learning. Some Care Houses used elaborate architectural technologies to create three-dimensional house designs. In one of the units, we examined the economics of health and housing, discovering how our beautiful dreams of accessibility would crash on the rocks of national poverty, racism and discrimination, and lack of a robust healthcare system.  At the end of the semester, we created an online “neighborhood” of our Care Houses as our submission to the Disability Studies Showcase, and our final “presentation” assignment was to “tour the neighborhood” and comment on the accessibility features and goals for each Care House.

Second Iteration

Screenshot of computer generated entryway into a house with blue siding and a yellow door. Text boxes describe the accommodations present in the house to make it accessible, like wood floors, ramp entrance, handrails.

Screenshot of a final video project, which tours a group’s Care House.

I prepared for the Fall of 2021 with a question: were Care Houses a pandemic-induced virtual experiment, or something worth integrating into the in-person classroom? Since research was showing that the impacts of COVID-19 had caused more forms of stress and anxiety for all (Yang 2021, Liu 2021, von Keyserlingk 2022) I decided to try an in-person form of Care Houses in my Engelhard-supported Disability and Culture course.

I divided the class into Care Houses using information about level, majors, minors, and extracurriculars. The students’ first task was to choose a name, create a logo, and go to the Maker Hub to make buttons with their logo. The goal of this exercise, as they all realized, was to spend some time together outside of the classroom and do something in a creative space. Everyday in class, I took attendance by Care House rather than by individual, and attendance turned out to be much higher than most semesters. When a Care House reported that someone was out, I asked if they knew why and if they were in touch with the person. Students felt that their presence or absence in class was actually noticed by their classmates, and this made them feel more impelled to attend—they felt more included and “seen.”

During the semester, the Care Houses often did small group discussions on an assigned reading and contributed to a class Google Doc. At various times, the Care Houses were asked to read over the discussion points made by the other Care Houses. Over a couple of semesters, I learned that the students so appreciated how they got to meet other students in their Care Houses that they wished they could meet other students in the class to the same depth. An example of a full semester of activities documented by one Care House is given below.² 

The final project allowed each Care House to choose one ethnographic reading from a non-English-speaking context that would be the basis of their final presentation and writing assignment. The final project reflection also included a prompt asking the students to discuss their own identities and how they contributed to the group’s ability to organize, understand, synthesize, present, and write the final project.

I am energized by the student comments about the Care Houses, excerpted below, and intend to continue this shared experience in future classes.

Student Reflections from Disability and Culture and Intro to Medical Anthropology

  • “[Classrooms are] meant to be a space of shared learning and experience. And that is what the Care Houses were able to facilitate.”
  • “ I had so many options to satisfy my access needs as a disabled student and that’s truly all we ask for. Is to have the chance to be included fully and completely.”
  • “It was extremely comforting knowing my care house members would have my back, especially during our first in-person semester since the pandemic began. I hope to see this care house idea adopted by other professors. I know it would have been tremendously helpful in other classes I have taken.”
  • “This class has taught me the value of teamwork and building a community. These are lessons I hope to continue into my adult life after graduation. This may look like reaching out to coworkers to reach goals on group projects or accommodating to the needs of family members.”
  • “My housemates and I not only read and learned about the perspectives of the authors in Disability Visibility, but we saw the readings, and disability in general, through the lens of each other.”
  • “I felt as though my group developed a strong community which allowed me to feel significantly less stressed about the class and focus on my classwork a little more.”
  • “While the care house structure added responsibility, I actually found that it gave me great reassurance about what I had to turn in and complete… Because we had the entire semester to build dialogue, it became easy for us to challenge each other’s ideas, facilitate respectful discussion, and communicate effectively.”
  • “As the semester progressed, I spent less time and energy feeling stressed about messing up or saying something ‘dumb’ in front of my classmates, and more time focused on the material and conversation in class.”



1) Accessibility Syllabus Language:

“Disabilities can be visible and invisible, and I am dedicated to ensuring that all students can succeed in my course.  I will survey you at the start of the semester about what works best for you in the online classroom. A classroom becomes a community when we all participate and expand our horizons—if there are ways that our community can foster your participation, your well-being as a student, and your academic success, please bring them to my attention as soon as you can. Students with documented disabilities, students wishing to get help with study skills, and students who wish to find out more about their learning styles, can make use of the Academic Resource Center: academicsupport.georgetown.edu


2) A Chronology of Care House Activities in Spring 2023 (ANTH 250) as documented by a student Care House group:

As a Care House, there was not one week where we were not communicating with each other. We had a group chat where we reminded each other of readings, and deadlines and communicated with each other about our attendance. The majority of our communication was through our group chat and in person. 

Care House Activities began January 23, 2023. This was the first day of Care House formations and where we met one another. Our activity this day consisted of getting to know our Care House members and understanding that Care Houses will be a source of support and collaboration for the class. We started brainstorming a name for the Care House and decided we wanted to be called COOL. We then proceeded to discuss the first two chapters of the Textbook by SBLP. We addressed questions about the importance of health anthropology, our knowledge of health anthropology, and breaking down our understanding of health. The goal of this Care House Activity was to begin and prepare ourselves for conversations about health, disease, illness, well-being and anthropological approaches. 

January 30, 2023, Care House Activity was to roleplay patient and provider. We had to read aloud to a member of our Care House the section titled “elements” in the O’Connor book. The goal was to explore the patient-provider experience and recognize which misconceptions we may have. 

 February 1, 2023, Care House Activity was to engage in the reading assigned. We read an article regarding the burden of disease on African Americans. We explored the authors and their credibility. The article engaged with many other topics outside of health which was interesting to see the intersections. 

February 6, 2023, Care House Activity was to engage with the reading “Culture of Medicine and Racial, Ethnic and Class Disparities in Healthcare”  by Good, James, and Becker. In this activity, we also engaged in conversations surrounding narratives, political correctness, and the notion of “difficult patients”. We also had a discussion about the importance of diversity needed in doctors and medical classes. The discussion then shifted to cultural competence and the need for updated training. On this day we also created a logo/ image that would go on our button!

February 8, 2023, Care House Activity today was to discuss some of the material we were asked to engage with. We discussed Serena Williams’ video where she tells her experience with labor. Maternal Health and the disparities in health care were topics we explored this day. We also shared the articles we read about Black health and why we chose to read them. 

February 27, 2023, Care House Activity was to look at the bibliographies of the SBLP and the O’Connor book. This assignment was to get us ready to think about the Care House book we would have to read. It allowed us to also gauge what other members were interested in and see if there was anything in common.  

March 20, 2023, Care House Activity we discussed as a group chapter 8 in the SBLP textbook. We also engaged with the material by adding our personal experiences with genetic testing and what preconceived views we may have of these technologies. It was an activity for the group to also discuss genetics and the use and need of genetic testing by many people. 

March 27, 2023, Care House Activity This day was to look at the 13 reforms in chapter 9 and classify them. These reforms were a lot to understand and go through so it was useful to hear your members’ perspectives on them. As a Care House, we were able to engage with all the reforms and understand them differently because each member brought a different perspective to the discussion. We also discussed how possible these reforms may be. 

May 29, 2023, As a Care House we discussed the book and decided on a day that would work best for our book discussion meal. We talked about final schedules and strategies for tackling the book. 

April 12, 2023, Care House Activity was to discuss and decide which book we wanted to choose to read.

April 17, 2023, Care House Activity was to discuss the Loudell Snow reading. The topics discussed were pregnancy and the experience of being pregnant. Pregnancy is an experience that differs by experience and there are certain factors that affect that experience. The article discusses the experiences of African American surrounding pregnancy. How the community views pregnancy, abortion, and teen pregnancy were some of the topics discussed. This article provided a different perspective surrounding our own ideas about pregnancy. 

April 19, 2023, the Care House activity was to discuss and engage with the Voeks and Sercombe Hunter Gather in Borneo reading. We had to choose 10 interesting things in the reading and share without Care House why they were interesting. This reading opens us up to discover how hunter-gatherer societies functioned and their use of medicine. These societies used plants as medicine and healers to promote well-being and health. 

April 24, 2023, Care House activity was to engage with the reading by Margaret Lock on the “Medicalization and the Naturalization of Social Control.” The activity was to create an outline of the article with important names, terms, and definitions. 

May 1, 2023, We created an outline together and each member wrote a quick summary about their progress and understanding of the book. This outline was helpful as it gave each member a different perspective on how to view the specifics of Schizophrenia in Bethel and Japan. The following days were used as discussion and reading days. 

May 4th, 2023, Care House Book Discussion Meal. We got together at a Care House and enjoyed a meal with a great conversation with Dr. Önder.


The “Care House” Concept was developed by Dr. Sylvia W. Önder and the students in Disability and Culture (Fall 2020, Fall 2021, Fall 2022) and Intro to Medical Anthropology (Spring 2021, Spring 2022, Spring 2023).