By ESTHER MACINTYRE

ALLIED health students are finding out what it’s really like to have a disability, ditching the scrubs to don a purpose-built ’empathy suit’.

The clearly labelled orange jumpsuits simulate a range of disabilities and chronic conditions, forcing the wearer to hunch over, walk with a limp, and experience hearing or sight impairments.

Danielle White is senior manager and nursing academic with Broken Hill University Department of Rural Health, working with students of occupational therapy, speech therapy, and social work.

“We’d normally also include nursing and medical students as well, in something like this,” Danielle said.

“So we put the students into the suits, to basically walk in someone else’s shoes for a day,” she said.

Students buddy up in pairs, to also take on the role of carer.

“What we do is we take them outside, get them to think about things like the uneven surfaces on footpaths, the time constraints of how much longer it takes for someone with an impairment to actually be able to walk to the chemist and fill their script,” Danielle said.

“They’ve all got ear plugs in, so they’re all struggling to actually hear each other speak.

“Then we swap them all over and they get to do it again,” she said.

The suits are designed to create a whole lot of different medical-based physical impairments.

“So someone that maybe has had a stroke, or you can see some of them have got leg braces on, or leg weights. They all have mobility aids, some of them have got glasses on that create a vision impairment as well.

The experience looks to be equally fun and frustrating, learning to navigate a range of new impairments.

“It’s fun for the students to do, but I guess the message is, they get to take the suits off,” Ms White said.

“People that have a disability or a chronic condition, or are aged, don’t have that luxury of being able to do that.

“That’s really what the message is about, getting them to just walk in someone else’s shoes, have a little bit of empathy the next time they might be working with someone,” Ms White said.

The simulation is very convincing, so the students are careful not to appear to mock people who are aged or impaired.

“Always when we’re out in community, you might actually see someone that might have an impairment that’s very similar, so we make sure we go and explain to them what we’re doing,” Ms White said.

“That’s the intent, that it is a very bright orange suit, it’s not meant to be disrespectful in any way, we talk about it being a simulation, and the feedback from community is that they really appreciate that we’re actually trying to train students to think about this.

The Broken Hill University Department of Rural Health came up with the concept, and its main university partner, University of Sydney, has made it into a marketable tool.

“It’s now called the Empathy Suit, and we’re working with the Monash University to deliver that to a range of students within the region down here,” Ms White said.

“We’re able to bring these down from Broken Hill, to use, with the idea that hopefully we can purchase our own and continue to deliver the training when we have students come through the area,” she said.