Everyone Has a Story, Take the Time to Listen

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People with Disabilities Share Their Experiences 
with Physician Assistant (PA) Students

Three residents of Inglis House breezed into Founder’s Hall with speedy precision on their custom-adapted motorized chairs. Two residents used a joystick similar to the control device used for a video game to maneuver into the orientation room. Another person used a Sip’n’Puff ™ mouth piece adaptation to operate their wheelchair hands-free. These residents were all part of a panel of representatives from Inglis - a long-term care facility for adults with severe disabilities - who shared their stories with the University’s Physician Assistant (PA) Studies Class of 2020 on two recent visits. This inaugural experience was just one of a variety of pre-clinical experiences for first-year PA students designed to provide patient contact prior to off-site clinical rotations and their eventual medical practice.

Advocates and Self-Advocacy
The residents spoke frankly to the group about their dramatic personal losses and life before coming to live at Inglis. They shared how they had to adapt to their “new normal,” and the challenges and frustrations they have encountered as a result of their disability. With humor and poignancy they expressed their need for independence, creativity, engagement and the ability to be involved with their medical plan of care. Each resident has channeled this call into advocacy work, either serving as a representative to Inglis management and its board of directors, or to outside organizations serving those with disabilities in the greater Philadelphia community.

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Inglis staff also addressed the students and stressed the importance of listening to the residents, many of which were challenged to speak clearly as a result of their condition. They advised the students to take the time to let the resident talk and resist the urge to finish their sentence. If there was difficulty in understanding what the resident was trying to express, staff recommended students ask them to repeat themselves, even if it was multiple times. “The residents taught me that you need to be patient, take the time to listen, and find ways to overcome communication barriers in order to provide the best patient care,” said Nicole Harnwell, ‘20PA.

Everyone Has a Story
After orientation, PA students paired off and headed to designated resident’s rooms to chat more personally. The residents shared stories about their families, jobs, hobbies, talents, interests and daily lives. And, students were encouraged to also direct the conversation to residents’ experiences with healthcare providers, in order to learn about communication barriers they may have encountered, as well as their needs and frustrations as patients with physical challenges. These residents were familiar engaging with future clinicians – occupational, medical, nursing and recreational therapy students - and volunteered to provide an individual learning experience for the University’s PA students.

Dr. Margaret Mulligan, associate professor in the Salus PA program, explained, “This gave the students an opportunity to experience challenges to patient communication. Something they may come across from time to time out in the real world.” Dr. Mulligan believed the individual interviews reinforced the need for highly developed patience and listening skills for the University’s future practitioners.

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Several students were able to observe residents outside of their living quarters, using Inglis’ on-site computer lab. Some were composing emails; one was creating Valentine’s Day greeting cards; and another was completing a data entry project. Most residents used adaptive technology -- keyboards, computer mice, software, and specialized screens – all customized to their needs.  “The computer lab was amazing to see,” observed Harnwell.  “One resident demonstrated how she can type and use the internet just by moving her eyes. It gives people with disabilities access to the internet and a whole new form of communication, which is crucial for numerous residents who have speech difficulties.”

Inglis House offers occupational, physical and speech therapy, in addition to providing nursing and medical care to over 250 residents. Serving the Philadelphia area for nearly 150 years, Inglis’ mission is to enable people with disabilities – and those who care for them – to achieve their goals and live life to the fullest. This experience will become an annual activity as part of the PA program’s pre-clinical exposure with the potential for other programs across the University to participate in the future.