Accessible Curriculum

In developing the content for the Education and Employment issue of Access Press, the staff and contributing editors realized we […]

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In developing the content for the Education and Employment issue of Access Press, the staff and contributing editors realized we had a huge task at hand.  Where do you start in relaying information to consumers with disabilities, educators and employers about the programs that are already in the works and at the same time be cognizant that there is a long way to go in developing and disseminating this information to a mass audience?

Starting with the Education Section, we looked into how curriculum at the University of Minnesota Medical School is being tailored to include training for how doctors should treat patients with disabilities.  The word treat, in this context, defines not only the medical treatment that a patient receives, but also how the doctor interacts with the patient as a whole.

Our research led us to Michael Cohn, the founder of an organization called Promote Awareness (, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the public’s perception of people with disabilities.  Cohn has battled NBIA (Neurodegeneration with Brain Iron Accumulation) originally known as HSS, (Hallervorden Spatz Syndrome), which is a neurological movement disorder characterized by progressive degeneration of the nervous system, for many years.  While undergoing treatment for regulating his medications and improving his mobility, posture and speech, Cohn attended college to earn a bachelor’s degree in education marketing, continuing on to a master’s of education in human resource development.  His philosophy has always been that by promoting the abilities of people with disabilities, he is able to show the able-bodied that people like him are much more than their disabilities.

Others, like Sara Axtell, Research Associate at the U. of M. Medical School, Educational Development and Research department, shared Cohn’s vision.  In 1999, a group of students and medical staff met with disability activists to discuss the perspectives on disability and medicine.  From this they developed recommendations to improve the medical school curriculum on diversity issues, including issues related to disability.

One of the first steps in implementing these recommendations was the creation of a Disability Issues Interest Group, for medical students. The group planned an implemented a four-session co-curriculum series on disability issues in health care.  The purpose of the co-curriculum would be:

  • To promote awareness of disability issues.
  • To increase students’ comfort level in interacting with people with disabilities.
  • To increase students’ effectiveness as advocates for people with disabilities.
  • To increase awareness of common barriers faced by people with disabilities and of ways to overcome those barriers.
  • To improve students’ knowledge of community resources.

The co-curriculum lectures series include:

  • Changing Perspectives – Shifting the Paradigm from a Medical to a Cultural Model.
  • Access to Health Care – Sharing Stories: including Issues of Pediatric patients transitioning into adult medicine.
  • Disability Issues in Sexual and Reproductive Health.
  • Advocacy – Physician and Community Perspectives. 

Pre- and post-session evaluations were distributed to all students who attended.  Students were asked to rate their responses to statements about their comfort, awareness, and motivation to work with people with disabilities.  The evaluations gathered at the lectures have proven valuable to the medical students.  The students’ awareness increased on the difference of the medical and interactional or cultural model of diversity, on how physicians can help improve the quality of care and decrease the potential barriers to health care for people with disabilities, on comfort discussing sexual and reproductive issues with people with disabilities, on their role as advocates and resources for people with disabilities. 

The faculty then began to interweave these recommendations into the Medical School curriculum Last year, the School integrated two new required sessions on disability, one session focusing on the cultural construction of disability, and a second session focusing on chronic illness, in which students meet in small groups with community members affected by chronic illness, to talk about their experiences. 

The University understands that it’s making strides.  However, it’s looking into how they can thread more information into the curriculum for more impact.  Currently, the Medical School, and the Academic Health Center, is trying to increase the involvement of people with disabilities in teaching students basic interview and exam skills.  As part of an initiative called the Standardized Patient Program, community members are paid to engage in role plays of clinical encounters.  The Program would like to increase the number of people with disabilities who are involved in this program.

If you are interested in participating in the Role Play sessions for students to gain an understanding of how to interview and interact with a patient with a disability, please contact Jane Miller at the University of Minnesota at 612-624-8969, or by email at [email protected]

Along with developing curriculum for understanding diversity dimensions the University of Minnesota Medical School decided that they needed to develop curriculum for the medical students that included information of all people with different cultures.  This included the immigrant population, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) community, as well as, the cultural differences of people from different ethnic, social and economic population.

In addition to the creation of curriculum for the University of Minnesota Medical School students, Michael Cohn, Sara Axtell, and Ronna Linroth of Gillette Technology Center are working on a new video geared towards enhancing the knowledge of medical students on how to interact with patients with disabilities.  The video will show various scenarios, good and bad, that have occurred in the medical field.  Many patients with disabilities have often had doctors and nurses make incorrect assumptions about them.  The video will be incorporated early into the medical school curriculum, but it could be for anyone.  The core issues of the video will be:

  • Primary Care: without focusing on the disability.
  • Sexuality and Disabilities.
  • Physical: clinical and hospital accessibility.

While talking to Sara Axtell on developing this article on disabilities on campus, her first response was “curriculum and accessibility are interrelated.” The hope is not only to train the medical profession on how to interact with patients with disabilities, but also bring the message to a broader audience on proper interaction with a person with a disability.

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