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Upstate medical students teach and learn at InclusiveU

Wednesday from 1 to 2 p.m. is the best hour of the week say three second-year medical students at Upstate Medical University Norton College of Medicine. That’s when they cross the street from Upstate to Syracuse University and teach a course on “Health Advocacy” to students in SU’s InclusiveU.

InclusiveU is a program that brings together students of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities who want to experience college life in an inclusive setting. “The goal is to prepare students to live as independently and safely as possible,” said Amelia Gabor, a Cazenovia native who, along with fellow students Mary “Maddy” Locastro and Jonathan Bearden teach the course at SU’s School of Education. 

They share lessons on health matters with the students, including nutrition, exercise, mindfulness and sleep hygiene. They find the students to be engaged. “They are curious and interested in their health,” Gabor said of the nine students in their class.

Students will often come to the next class excited to share that they made use of what they learned the week before. After a recent lesson on nutrition, students reported they went to the dining hall and ordered salads. 

The course involves a lot of active learning with students taking part in lessons. A recent class on going to the doctor had the instructors demonstrate stethoscopes, reflex hammers and penlights, the latter used to check eyes for health. Then the students were offered a chance to use the tools on the instructors.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and confusion at a visit to the doctor’s,” said Gabor. The idea is that a chance to touch the medical tools might put students more at ease.

“The students bring in personal experiences,” said Locastro, a Marcellus native who has volunteered and worked in the field of developmental pediatrics for a decade. One thing the three heard from students is that doctors often address their parents but not them during an office visit. Locastro said hearing that can help future doctors.

In an effort to improve the experience for patients with developmental disabilities, the three have invited classmates to volunteer in the classroom. “Part of our goal is to ensure our peers are comfortable with this population,” Locastro said. “We three recognized that disability education isn’t a focus for students at most medical schools,” she said. “We are all going to encounter this population.”

They have found their classmates to be nervous on the way to volunteering in a class, but they soon relax and laughing with the students and fellow teachers. Afterward, said Gabor, everyone says the same thing: “That was so fun!”

Locastro has been involved in developmental pediatrics for years, assisting families dealing with insurance procedures so they can acquire medical equipment needed by their children, as well as working on adaptive design for children with disabilities.

Gabor’s interest dates to kindergarten when she became friends with Harry Dydo, a fellow pupil. Later, in second or third grade she recognized he had a disability, Down syndrome. They remained friends up to and through high school. After graduation, Gabor went to Villanova University. Dydo went to InclusiveU.

In phone calls during their first semester, Gabor would hear from Dydo about the program. Before long, she was proposing to Villanova administrators that the Philadelphia-area college create a similar program. Her efforts led to the creation of VUnited, a student organization that seeks to enhance the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities. This 6-week program exposes participants to a college experience with social and academic components as individuals work toward achieving a certificate from Villanova University.

Having created the program at Villanova, Gabor was excited to apply to the Norton College of Medicine, knowing it would put her steps away from InclusiveU. She reached out during her first semester at medical school and in her second semester was, along with Locastro and Bearden, teaching a course.

The three are already scheduled to teach the course again in the spring semester.

As for Dydo, Gabor said he is doing very well. He has an apartment near SU, a job at a campus fitness center and is one of the managers for the Orange men’s basketball team. Gabor added that when she’s out for a run, she’ll often stop by the fitness center and check in with her childhood friend.

Caption: Upstate medical students have been serving as instructors at Syracuse University’s InclusiveU. The program gives those with developmental disabilities an opportunity to learn and live at the SU campus. Upstate students Amelia Gabor, second from left, Jonathan Bearden, second from right, and Mary “Maddy” Locastro, right, are second-year medical students who developed curriculum for and teach a course on “Health Advocacy.”