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“Inclusion is important, no matter what.” Graduate Seminar on Rural Disability and Health

Dr. Rayna Sage presenting at a conference in May 2017.

Dr. Rayna Sage presenting at a rural-focused workshop in May 2017.

In the Spring 2018 semester, RTC:Rural Research Associate Dr. Rayna Sage, who is also an adjunct instructor in the Sociology department at the University of Montana (UM), taught a graduate-level seminar called “Special Topics in Rural Disability and Health.”

The main course objectives were for students to build important writing skills they can take into their academic and professional lives, primarily through learning how to conduct rapid literature reviews. This involves identifying key pieces of literature related to a specific topic, and then quickly reviewing and organizing the literature for summary.

“The [literature review] process we learned is a time saver because you don’t have to rely on memory or scattered, unorganized articles all over your desktop. Limiting searches with exclusion and inclusion criteria is difficult but necessary because research moves so quickly. It is also necessary to gather information quickly, especially when competing for grant dollars,” said Margaret Perry, a public administration masters student and one of the three graduate students in the seminar. “I wish I had known how to do it sooner.”

Each student completed two rapid literature reviews over the course of the semester. Their topics were chosen based on students’ specific interests, as well as on topics of interest to RTC:Rural and the disability research community. These topics included:

  • Access to food for people with disabilities
  • Health literacy for people with disabilities
  • Rural EMS and disaster preparation
  • Opioid alternatives and treatment
  • Telemedicine in rural places
  • Rural veterans with disabilities

For all three graduate students in the seminar, Dr. Sage’s class was an introduction to disability issues. “I knew next to nothing about disability issues before this class, I was embarrassed by my ignorance! That is partly why I enrolled,” said Perry. “The thing that stands out the most for me after taking this class is that disability issues need more research.”

“I didn’t have any knowledge about disability before the class,” said UM sociology graduate student Lauren Miller. “It came up a few times in my thesis interviews, so it was nice to take the seminar after I had conducted my thesis interviews. It gave me a deeper understanding.” Miller’s graduate thesis looks at disaster preparation on Grand Isle, a small island off the coast of Louisiana.

A group of people in a community park enjoying a picnic. Two of the people are using powerchairs.

RTC:Rural research on community participation and independent living focuses on the resources and accessibility of rural community life for people with disabilities. (Photo from Healthy Community Living www.healthycommunityliving.com).

“When I signed up for Rayna’s course, I was hoping to gain a broader understanding [of disability issues], a bigger perspective of what others are going through. I don’t think about disability experience everyday as a person without a disability. Now I do. I’m more aware now than ever before,” said Miller.

This summer, Miller is working with RTC:Rural and Dr. Sage on the Participation in Rural Events among Young Adults with Disabilities research project. They will continue interviewing young adults with disabilities who live in rural communities to learn about the opportunities and experiences these young adults have with participating in community. Miller’s decision to focus on disability research for the summer was a direct influence of her experience in the seminar. “The class changed how I view city infrastructure. I realized how people with disabilities are so isolated in rural areas,” said Miller. “Inclusion is important, no matter what.”

While Perry, who graduated with her Master’s in Public Administration this semester, will not be going into a disability-focused field, she says the course has broadened her perspective. This summer, she will be starting a new position at the Linda Massa Youth Home in Hamilton, Montana. “I am interested to see how disability is perceived in a new organization. I hope that after this seminar, I can ensure that young people with disabilities are represented in the programs of the Youth Home,” she said.

In the future, Dr. Sage plans to offer the seminar again. ”I think a seminar like this provides emerging professionals across a number of fields the opportunity to think more deeply about disability in their work. I like to tell the students, ‘Once you are aware of how limiting our environment is for people with disabilities, you can’t unlearn it. It’s impossible not to notice the lack of curb cuts or other basic accessibility features.’ I also like that we can go deeper into cultural and social aspects that can sometimes be overshadowed  by concerns about the built environment.”

“I learned so much,” said Miller. “There were so many examples Rayna shared, connecting the literature we read with real life. I recommend the class to anyone who is interested in learning more about the disability experience.”