DHD partners with UIC Department of Family Medicine to expand disability training for medical students

A group of UIC medical students in the DHD-family medicine program pose in the lobby of UCP Seguin with Maureen Gecht Silver (center, family medicine) and Kiyoshi Yamaki (left, DHD), who are in charge of the program.

For someone with an intellectual or developmental disability, even a routine visit to the doctor can be an uncomfortable, even fearful, experience.

Medical advances mean people with IDD are living longer. However, compared to the general population, they experience disparities in access to health care and health outcomes, says disability researcher Kiyoshi Yamaki.

One reason, Yamaki says: society’s move away from deinstitutionalization means more people with IDD now live in the community and get their health care from providers who have little experience or training in treating people with IDD.

That’s why Yamaki collaborated with UIC family medicine faculty and a local nonprofit organization to establish an educational program that brings medical students and people with IDD together to eliminate stereotypes and break down barriers to health care.

The program, which began in the Department of Disability and Human Development in 2011, has expanded to three other Illinois universities—Northwestern, University of Chicago and Southern Illinois University—with recent funding from the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities.

“It’s an eye-opening experience for many of the medical students,” says Yamaki, DHD research associate professor.

The program, developed in collaboration with Maureen Gecht-Silver, associate director of medical student education in the Department of Family Medicine, is part of the family practice clerkship.

With only five to seven students each time, “it’s a very intensive interaction,” Yamaki says.


UIC Medical students talk to UCP Seguin participants about nutrition and the importance of eating fruits and vegetables. The medical students develop, then present, a session on a health-related topic for clients at UCP Seguin. This helps the students learn how to better communicate with people who have IDD.

Students learn how to interact comfortably and respectfully with people who have IDD, adjusting their communication style to use concrete examples instead of abstract concepts, avoid professional jargon, ask close-ended questions for nonverbal clients and give specific parameters for behavior change. They learn about legal rights and community services related to disability.

“One of really wonderful things is that we’re ingraining this into their foundational education, rather than ad hoc when they’re already in practice,” said research project manager Kaitlin Stober.

The students visit UCP Seguin, a community organization in Cicero that offers a variety of services to adults and children with IDD. They tour the facility and have one-on-one conversations with UCP Seguin clients.

Based on these interviews, the medical students develop an educational program on a health-related subject. Past programs have focused on topics like food portion sizes, what happens during a typical visit to the doctor, how germs are spread, and meditation to reduce stress.

In the final session, the students return to UCP Seguin to present their educational program to Seguin clients.

Since 2011, about 230 UIC medical students have been through the training. Their attitudes about people with IDD are measured by a survey taken before and after the program; results will be analyzed at the end of the funding period.

“Students who’ve completed the program say we have changed their perceptions,” Yamaki says. “This is a powerful program.”