University of Vermont

Navigating in the World of the Disabled: Med Students Gain First-Hand Glimpse on Nov. 7

Medical students use optical equipment to simulate visual disabilities
Medical students use optical equipment to simulate visual disabilities during a past disability awareness workshop at the UVM College of Medicine. (Photo by Raj Chawla, UVM Medical Photography)

“If we are lucky to survive long enough, we will likely be disabled in some way,” says Stephen Contompasis, M.D., University of Vermont associate professor of pediatrics and a disability awareness specialist. More than 12 percent – about 36 million people – of the U.S. population has at least one disability, according to the 2010 Census. Future physicians need to be prepared to work effectively with this population.

“People with disabilities are almost twice as likely as people without disabilities to report that, on one or more occasions, they did not get the medical services they needed,” says Contompasis, underscoring the need to offset this trend by preparing future physicians to gain an understanding and appreciation for the circumstances their future disabled patients confront on a daily basis.

To help second-year UVM medical students sharpen their disability awareness skills, Contompasis developed a curriculum that puts students in front of and in the “shoes” of deaf and disabled individuals. The workshop – which took place on November 7, 2012 – uses a mix of deaf and disabled community member panel presentations and mobility, visual, hearing and other impairment simulation activities. Medical students get a sense of what life is like after a stroke, or when blind, or without the ability to communicate verbally, as they navigate various rooms and hallways in the UVM College of Medicine Medical Education Center and Given buildings using equipment that helps simulate disabilities.

“My task was to communicate with only my eyes,” said a former medical student of his disability simulation experience. “I found it very frustrating, from the patient’s perspective, to have to go in circles with the ‘doctor’ to convey my problem. It was virtually impossible to rely on eye movement alone.”

“Doors were my greatest enemy, as were things that required movement of the wheelchair in addition to tasks requiring one or both hands, such as holding a cup of hot coffee while navigating through a cafeteria line, or trying to use the lavatory or maneuver through the library,” said one medical student following her experience.

Contompasis, a developmental pediatrician who cares for children and adolescents with developmental, learning, and/or behavioral problems, also serves as program director of UVM’s Interdisciplinary Leadership Education Program for Health Professionals (ILEHP), which focuses on interdisciplinary training, developmental disability awareness, developmental screening, and autism.

“Our data from this workshop show that students experience significant changes in awareness and attitudes following the disability awareness activities,” Contompasis says. “Many students cite specific ways they might practice in the future, such as being more inclusive and helpful to patients with disabilities.”