University to open long-term disability research center

Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - 6:55pm

Thanks to a $4.3 million grant and the tenacity of a few professors, students and future students with physical disabilities might be able to live a little more comfortably.

In October, a new research center at the University of Michigan will begin investigating how to improve aging for those facing long-term physical disabilities.

The idea for the new research center was spearheaded by a team of investigators: Michelle Meade, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation psychology; Philippa Clarke, a professor of epidemiology; and Robyn Rontal, policy analytics director at the Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation.

Clarke said a new research center is necessary to help design a world more accessible to individuals with physical disabilities.

“What’s happened essentially is that people who have had disabilities in the past, typically never lived long enough to be old or to age,” Clarke said. “But with all the improvements in technology and medical care, there is a wonderful thing that is happening: People with disabilities are now growing older. However the services and support that we have set up for older adults have never really been targeted or able to meet the needs of this new group of clients who have been living with physical disabilities.”

Meade, the lead investigator for the research center, believes the center could perhaps ease those complexities.

“Individuals with disabilities are more likely to have other health conditions, such as diabetes, depression,” Maede said. “They are more likely have had days where they are not feeling well, and less likely to have access to care, and more likely to report problems with the care they have. So we put all these pieces together, working among these departments really provides us with the opportunity to develop a solution that could be used here and across the United States.”

According to a National Center for Education Statistics report, students with physical disabilities in 2011 and 2012 accounted for 11.1 percent of all undergraduates enrolled nationwide. The 2016 Campus Climate Survey says 5 percent of students at the University report having a disability. 

The University offers resources for students with physical disabilities. Students who are deaf, hard of hearing or have temporary or permanent motoric disabilities are eligible to receive accomodations in their classes. These can include notetaking, video captioning and real-time transcription services. However, these resources are often difficult to access or even inadequate. Last year, then-Architechture graduate student Mieko Preston told The Daily that it was an uphill battle to register for disability accomodations with the University. She experienced a stroke several years ago and now uses a medical scooter.

“The accessibility of being able to benefit from those accommodations or resources that are necessarily put in place is actually extremely difficult,” she said. 

Meade and her colleagues requested funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research to establish a Rehabilitation Research and Training Center program at the University. The center will conduct research, offer hands-on training and spreads awareness and information around rehabilitation efforts. 

These University studies, called the the Investigating Disability Factors and Promoting Environmental Access for Healthy Living RRTC, or IDEAL, will look specifically at the effects that both personal and environmental factors have on people with physical disabilities and how that, in turn, affects the aging process.

Meade also hopes this center will serve as a national resource center for policy makers, and all types of disability organizations, thus helping distribute the new knowledge breed at the U-M research center.

“One of the projects run by Dr. Michael McKee is about creating a model clinic for family medicine for individuals with disabilities,” Meade said. “Once again, we want to develop the best practice and then we want to share them. Hopefully, by doing this, we will be changing the way that we do clinical practice, they way that we provide services, and make sure things are relevant for people with physical disabilities.”

Meade said this center will help people nationally and hopefully make its way onto campus.

“Students are in the need of also accessing care, such as getting into the recreational facilities or accessing courses and lectures with those with hearing impairments,” Clarke said. “We are trying to understand how we structure our campus with simple things like examining how many stairs we have.”

Engineering sophomore Ellie Rocheleau said she believes the research center will provide new opportunities and a sense of optimism for those dealing with long-term physical disabilities.

“Someone I know is affected by ulcerated colitis, which is the swelling of the colon that leads to stomach aches and other intestinal issues,” Rocheleau said. “This is usually linked with severe arthritis, which in turn, leads to being unable to drive, walk, or even stand. Not only does this also affect him physically; it has led to a great deal of anxiety to try to figure out how to live his day to day— because even when he has good days, it is still an ongoing battle. It is hard enough to be able to deal with the one initial illness; if there was some new technology or medicine that could make living just a little easier,  I think that would make all the difference. This new research center could allow him that ounce of hope and optimism.”