February 15, 2022

MDisability launches inaugural American Sign Language course for first-year University of Michigan medical students

A second course will begin in March.

In its mission to educate future doctors on how to care for those with disabilities, MDisability, in collaboration with with Medical Students for Disability Health & Advocacy (MSDHA) at U-M,  introduced the inaugural American Sign Language course to first-year medical students at University of Michigan Medical School (UMMS) in the fall of 2021.

The class was the product of much effort on the part of former MDisability intern and second-year medical student Kate Panzer, and Alexa Minc, a fourth-year medical student at the time the course was being  coordinated. Panzer and Minc established the MSDHA in January 2021, with the aim of promoting disability health within medical education and supporting medical students with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

kate panzer
Medical Student Kate Panzer

Preparation for the class began in January of 2021, with the help of Mike McKee, MD, MPH, associate professor of Family Medicine and director of MDisability, and Philip Zazove, MD., professor and chair of the Family Medicine Department at U-M. Both are ASL-fluent and co-direct the Deaf Health Clinic at Michigan Medicine’s Dexter Health Center.

ASL medical interpreters Christa Moran and Leslie Pertz also assisted, and Professor Julia Shields served as instructor. Student response was impressive, with 44 students applying and 22 ultimately beginning and completing the 10-week course.

“As a newly minted medical student, I recognized the need to expand disability inclusion in medical education,” said Panzer, who was first introduced to ASL as a University of Pennsylvania student. “Very few medical schools prepare students to partner with Deaf patients, resulting in barriers to communication and adherence.

“Inspired by the life-changing impact of my ASL classes, I hoped to provide a similar experience for other medical students and increase the number of Deaf-friendly physicians.”

Read Panzer's narrative: Former MDisability intern describes her experience creating ASL course

The course kicked off in October 2021 and included 10 weeks of ASL classes, two times a week, one in person and a second conducted via Zoom. A second ASL course (FAM MED 5970) begins March 7 and goes until May 15.

Shields, who is Deaf, taught the first group of students hundreds of ASL ‘signs’ – from the alphabet to common words and clinical terms. The course also included an introduction to Deaf culture and the experiences of individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing in the medical setting.

Julia Shields
ASL Professor Julia Shields

Shields has been teaching ASL since 2013 in states ranging from Massachusetts and Delaware to Michigan and is teaching the second course offered at UMMS. She said she was excited to teach the class and pushed hard for the course to be taught partly in person. UMMS officials agreed.

“This was the best time and best decision ever,” Shields said. “I was dying of ‘thirst’ to teach an ASL class in person, and I was so happy when they agreed to let me teach ASL in person on Mondays with one serious condition – all of us had to wear masks during class period. I truly love teaching ASL classes in person and in classrooms. It worked out really well!”

Not only did students learn ‘signs’ and the inequities that Deaf and hard of hearing people face in medical encounters, they listened to panelists who are deaf talk about their own experiences, including a patient who receives her care at the Deaf Health Clinic. Medical ASL interpreter Moran also talked about her experience interacting with patients at Michigan Medicine’s healthcare facilities.

First-year medical student Gabriella Auchus, who was instrumental in getting the second ASL course going, said she had received an introduction to speech and hearing sciences through undergrad classes and to deaf and hard of hearing communities by volunteering at a summer camp for people with disabilities. However, she had limited familiarity with ASL.

“These experiences made me very interested in learning ASL, but I never had the opportunity to do so until I found this course at UMMS,” she said. “ASL is such a beautiful language, and Professor Shields is an incredibly patient and engaging teacher, which made it so much fun to learn in this course.”

Auchus added that what was most impactful to her was discovering how patients who use sign language face different obstacles to participating in and understanding their healthcare versus their spoken language peers. 

“These patients deserve someone on their team advocating for them,” Auchus said. “The American healthcare system is not set up well for patients with disabilities, so I think it is essential for physicians to be mindful of patients who might need additional resources to experience the same high quality of healthcare, and provide that support."

Fellow first-year medical student Sarah Hughes said she took the course to develop skills to appropriately care for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“Prior to this class, I understood that D/deaf and hard-of-hearing patients faced significant barriers in healthcare,” she said. “Still, I was hoping to further understand the nuances and subtleties of this phenomenon through taking this class.

“Hearing the stories shared by the Deaf patient panel showed me the value of learning ASL to ease clinical encounters. Panelists shared their most challenging health care encounters and most vulnerable experiences that both touched me and frustrated me. These experiences shed light on how different their encounters would have gone without a language barrier.”

For information about future ASL courses in UMMS, please contact Gabriella Auchus at gcauchus@med.umich.edu or Evelyn Matei at ematei@med.umich.edu. For information about Medical Students for Disability Health & Advocacy, click here