The community as a learning environment: Engaging with people with communication disability through a pilot interdisciplinary service learning experience
Rena Lyons (NUI Galway), Ruth McMenamin (NUI Galway), Sean Dinneen (NUI Galway), Yvonne Finn (NUI Galway)
The Discipline of Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) has embedded Service Learning (SL) as a mandatory component in the curriculum. This pedagogical approach has resulted in benefits for students, community partners and academics. Traditionally health care has focused on the medical model which primarily involves curing the disorder (Palestini, Rowe & Chapman, 1997). With the recent emergence of the social model, there is an emphasis on the impairment, the personal impact of disability on people’s lives and the role of society in facilitating participation (Shakespeare, 2006; C. Thomas, 2004). The concept of interdisciplinary learning is almost universally supported, but invariably not achieved (Leathard, 2000).
If students are to understand the lived experiences of people with communication disabilities, their learning experiences need to extend beyond the classroom and hospital. Service learning enables students to apply academic theory to practice and to explore this relationship through community engagement (Moore, 2000). This paper outlines the process involved in extending this SL opportunity to undergraduate medical students and we will describe preliminary outcomes.
With the support of the Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI) in NUI Galway and local health services, SL was introduced into the SLT curriculum in 2006. A need to extend the conversational opportunities for people with communication disabilities resulting from acquired brain injury was identified. Consequently, SLT students were trained as conversation partners and visited people with communication disability in the community. Following collaboration with the School of Medicine, this SL experience was offered as an elective to third year undergraduate medical students.
The implementation of this experience involved three steps: provision of information about the programme to the medical students which involved peer interdisciplinary learning; training the medical students to be conversation partners; and pairing the medical students with SLT students who were then matched with people with communication disability in the community. We collected data on the facilitators of and barriers to the process and preliminary feedback on experiences of participating in the programme from both groups of students.
Our preliminary findings indicated that the facilitators of the process include: commitment of academic staff, enthusiasm of SLT students who had completed the programme, positive feedback about the content and interdisciplinary nature of the training. The barriers to the process included student workload, timetable commitments, the elective nature of the module and lack of academic credit for the medical students. Our observations during interdisciplinary learning sessions indicated that the students aligned themselves with their own professional group. 6 medical students and 27 SLT students participated in the service learning experience and both groups reported improved confidence in communication skills, and awareness of communication disability in society and understanding of other discipline’s professional role.
This paper outlines the first interdisciplinary service learning experience for two health care professionals. While the overall experience has been positive, the process has been challenging but rewarding. This paper may be of interest to academics considering interdisciplinary education and service learning as a pedagogical approach.