Physical therapy students use wheelchairs to deepen understanding of disabled patients

Fourth-year physical therapy students Keith Yatauro and Valerie Thompson
The project was designed by fourth-year physical therapy students Keith Yatauro and Valerie Thompson.
Nov. 26, 2012 - For Meaghan Lynch, a third-year physical therapy student in the School of Health Sciences, the biggest challenge using a wheelchair was simply getting from one class to the next.

"I was struck by how much preparation is involved in doing daily activities," explained Lynch, who spent 24 hours in a wheelchair as part of a project by students in the entry-level doctor of physical therapy program. The usually self-reliant Lynch learned quickly that she had to depend on other people to help her navigate across campus or find an alternative way to reach an item on a high shelf in a dining hall.

It was only one day in November, but it was enough time to gain valuable insight into some of the challenges people with disabilities face-an experience she says will help her as she enters the physical therapy profession.

That was the goal of this independent project on cultural competency, designed by fourth-year physical therapy students Keith Yatauro and Valerie Thompson. They recruited 11 volunteers, from freshmen to graduate students, to spend 24 hours in a wheelchair without changing their daily routine.

Yatauro said he wanted the experience to help future physical therapists to improve communicate with disabled patients and provide better health care. They also hoped the participants' presence in wheelchairs would raise awareness among the students they encountered on campus. Participants said it was a learning experience that could not be replicated in a classroom.

"To see someone accidentally slam the door on you, to have to go up a steep ramp, to make your way through a crowded hallway-those are things that I don't know you could describe in a book," said Thompson, who also participated. "Some of these things are so miniscule, but so impactful."

Participants said they were acutely aware of how much space they took up in a room. Some were surprised by the awkward reaction they received; others were frustrated by the difficulty of finding elevators or accessible entrances. In addition to the social challenges, the experience highlighted some of the physical difficulties that can be addressed in the clinic with adaptive technologies, as well as specific functional activities that can strengthen mobility for people using wheelchairs. Students also recognized the importance of focusing on the person and their unique needs.

"It's easy to put on your white coat and treat a person with a disability as a patient and not see them as a whole person," Thompson added.

Thompson and Yatauro began the project after they came across research that found that many health professionals have difficulties interacting with patients who have disabilities. They plan to create a video about the project for the Quinnipiac community.

Hannah Wood, a fourth-year physical therapy student said she has gained a new perspective on what it means to live with a disability. "I experienced a lot more challenges than I expected," she said. "It made me appreciate how much more people with disabilities go through."