MCCC Physical Therapist Assistant Students Experience a Morning From the Patient’s Perspective


WEST WINDSOR -- Mercer County Community College (MCCC) students in the Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program had the opportunity to walk a mall in their patient’s shoes, donning a variety of assistance devices and attempting to accomplish a variety of everyday tasks during Different Abilities Day.

“It’s a real eye-opener for them as they learn just how exhausting it can be to attempt a mall and what they might have thought was a simple task before, but now do it with different abilities,” said Professor Barbara Behrens, PTA faculty member and founding program coordinator. “Even paying for something from a wheelchair is a different type of experience for them.”

This is the 24th year Behrens has conducted Different Abilities Day as an exercise for the learners in the PTA prgram, giving them the opportunity to “live the life of a patient with a physical disability for a morning” during a trip to Quakerbridge Mall. They were divided up into four teams, with each group having a member in a wheelchair, a leg brace and sling, a walker with and a neck brace, crutches, different types of canes, and a walker.

While it might appear that the purpose of the exercise is to help future PTAs have empathy for their patients, Behrens says it goes much deeper than that.

“The learners are all healthy-normal, but they will be working with people who are not,” Behrens said. “There are things they need to know, like it takes a lot more energy to perform even the simplest of tasks with an assistance device. As a physical therapist assistant, you have to be patient.”

And Behrens notes there is the mental health aspect of treating a patient by helping them to remain active, in spite of the need to use an assistive device.

“Being able to continue doing everyday tasks helps patients to de-stress. It gives them something to do rather than just stay at home,” Behrens said. “Mental health is just as important as physical health.”

Some of the tasks learners performed included shopping for clothing, eating in the food court, shopping for greeting cards, browsing in a bookstore or game store, using an elevator, and using a handicapped restroom. Afterwards, they returned to the West Windsor Campus to discuss what they learned.

“I didn’t realize it could be so physically draining – simple tasks, like getting into a car or navigating stairs,” said Kyle Carter, a PTA student from Ewing, who participated in the exercise with a pair of crutches and a neck brace. “This is a real-world experience. Now I can better relate to patients. I have an understanding I didn’t have before.”

PTA student Adriana Clayton – who navigated Quakerbridge Mall with a walker without wheels – said that during the exercise, she thought of helpful tips she could pass along to patients to help make outside excursions easier, such as viewing a layout of the parking lot and business online before leaving home, planning their trip, and bringing along a bag to carry basic items.

Behrens said that these observations, and developing an understanding of the patient’s perspective, was an important part of the exercise.

“It promotes a different way of thinking,” Behrens said. “There’s so much they can get from it, if they let themselves.”

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Physical Therapist Assistant students at Mercer County Community College had the opportunity to experience a mall shopping experience from the perspective of a patient during Different Abilities Day.