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.

Matt Menzenski, a graduate student in Slavic languages & literatures, took this photo during President Obama’s speech at KU Thursday. Menzenski says he was struck by how relaxed the president was in his delivery. He missed a chance to hear former President Bill Clinton speak in his hometown in 2004, but finally got to see a sitting president this week at KU. “The opportunity to hear the president speak is just one of many great opportunities I've had at KU. So many interesting talks and events happen here all the time. I try to attend at least one a week-- it's never hard to find something interesting to go to.” Tags: University of Kansas College of Liberal Arts and Sciences KU School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures KU Dept of Slavic Languages - Friends & Alumni Barack Obama The White House #exploreKU #POTUSatKU

#RockChalk to Dana Adkins-Heljeson of @KSgeology , recipient of the Outstanding Support Staff Recognition Award.
Explore KU: The Bells of Mount Oread KU’s Campanile, a 120-foot-tall timepiece that tolls automatically on the hour and quarter-hour, not only sounded in the 2015 New Year at midnight with 12 mighty gongs, but also regularly rings up memories for many Jayhawks – the 277 faculty and students who gave their lives during World War II, the graduates who walk through its doors at commencement, and aspiring students who have strolled through the Lawrence campus. (See For nearly 60 years, KU’s 53-bell carillon has been tolling the sounds of peace and serenity across Mount Oread since it was installed in June 1955 inside the landmark World War II Memorial Campanile, which was dedicated in 1951. (See The carillon is also a four-octave musical instrument, which is played with a giant keyboard and foot pedals. University Carillonneur Elizabeth Egber-Berghout (, associate professor of carillon and organ, climbs 77 steps up a spiral staircase in the bell tower to perform recitals several times a month.

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