Christine Metz Howard
KU News Service

Study: Attitudes toward individuals with disabilities improve after simulating disability

Wed, 08/06/2014

LAWRENCE – Music students’ attitudes toward individuals with disabilities are more positive after they simulate having a disability, a University of Kansas study found.

Cynthia Colwell, a professor of music education and music therapy, recently published an article in the International Journal of Music Education that looked at what happened when music students were asked to simulate a disability.

Students training to be music therapists or music teachers were assigned to simulate one of the following disabilities: a one-arm amputation, lower-limb paralysis that required a wheelchair, a hearing impairment or a visual impairment. With one student simulating the disability and another acting as an aide, the pair had to be in a public place, such as a restaurant or grocery store, for at least 30 minutes each.

The students filled out a questionnaire before and after the assignment and wrote a reflection piece on their experience. This was followed by an in-class discussion.

Consistent themes emerged. Initially, many students were worried the assignment would be perceived as being disrespectful toward those with disabilities. And, some felt it was unnecessary to them developing an understanding or empathy toward their future clients or students.

But, after the exercise, students overall were positive about the experience and wrote that they felt more empathetic toward those with disabilities and gained insightful knowledge.  

“Without fail, all of them came back and said, 'That was really cool’,” Colwell said. “They don’t necessarily like the experience, but they said, 'This will help me working with a student or client with a disability.'”

For nearly two decades, Colwell has researched different ways to better prepare therapists, teachers and schoolchildren to interact with individuals who have disabilities. Earlier studies looked at the benefits of sharing knowledge about a disability with classroom peers. Colwell then compared that approach to doing simulation experiences in the elementary general music classroom.  

For the peer simulation exercise, elementary students read from sheet music that had jumbled words to simulate learning disabilities, other students used goggles that impaired vision, and some students were asked to simulate physical disabilities such as putting an arm in a sling to immobilize it.

“The kids were really engaged no matter what method we used. But what I found was there were more ‘aha moments’ when we put the kids in the simulation experience,” Colwell said. “After we did the simulation, it was a great opportunity for kids to really talk and have a much better understanding of what their peers were going through. Then we could lead a discussion on how they could be helpful.”

From there, Colwell moved to pre-service teachers, who have the benefit of passing positive attitudes onto future students.

“The primary goal is for students to be excited to work with children with disabilities and to see it as a potentially rewarding experience and not just a challenge,” Colwell said.

Because music teachers see a higher frequency of students with disabilities than a standard classroom teacher, Colwell said it is especially important for them to be comfortable. And music class is sometimes where students with disabilities feel the most at ease.

“Music is a medium with oral, visual and kinesthetic components. And, sometimes for children with disabilities, music is an area where they are at their best and where they can be successful,” Colwell said.

Colwell is now studying how a simulation experience compares to university students watching a video where master teachers in various music settings from elementary through high school describe their experiences with students who have disabilities. She is looking at which experience – the video or the simulation – has the most effect on university students’ attitudes.

KU in the news
Happy Halloween, Jayhawks! Check out the pumpkin-carving talents of our KU family. Yes, there's a jack-o-lantern rivalry going on in the middle there. Catch KU Football take on Baylor tomorrow at 3pm. Rock Chalk! (Thanks to all for submitting pictures – If you see your pumpkin, tag yourself!) Tags: Kansas Jayhawks #KUstudents #KUalumni

Inside KU: Protein research, biodiesel fuel, and KU's Bioscience & Technology Business Center "Inside KU" takes a look at how the expanded Bioscience & Technology Business Center ( brings a number of beneficial services to small start-ups, Fortune 500 companies, and everything in between. Also: A KU startup at the BTBC, KanPro, is producing proteins for research in medicine, biotechnology, and life sciences (See KU Innovation and Collaboration focuses on turning the university’s research into industry (See The "Feedstock to Tailpipe Initiative" grows algae to provide a sustainable source for biodiesel fuel (See Undergraduate Research Awards allow students to explore their fields deeper (See **The Time Warner Cable Sports Network's "Inside KU" is hosted by Jeannie Hodes.**

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
26 prestigious Rhodes Scholars — more than all other Kansas colleges combined
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
1 of 9 public universities with outstanding study abroad programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
46 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
$260.5 million in externally funded research expenditures
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times