Learning how to be an advocate and a friend

Pratyusha Mutyala, current dental student at the University of Pennsylvania, joined us this summer for HMS School’s Extended School Year (ESY) as a student intern. As one of our 2021 Bridging the Gaps interns, Pratyusha was paired with a teacher at HMS School and served as that teacher’s assistant throughout the Extended School Year program. Interns were able to assist with recreational activities, lesson plans, and student transportation to therapies. Interns were also able to join and observe students while they participated in physical, speech, and occupational therapy. During weekly meetings with their preceptor, the interns learned about various aspects of care for the students ranging from feeding needs to their adult transitioning period. Read more about Pratyusha’s HMS experience below:

Tell us more about yourself!
I am originally from New York City and graduated from Emory University in 2017 with a B.S. in Anthropology and Human Biology. In 2020, I started Dental School at the University of Pennsylvania. I hope to one day pursue a career in health policy so that access to healthcare is more equitable, cost-effective, and just.

When you heard that you were going to join HMS School for this opportunity, what were you most looking forward to or looking to gain?
I had never worked with the disability community before, so I was looking to gain a new perspective in what working with them would look like. This internship helped me to learn how to be an advocate and a friend to the disability community. Honestly, I was nervous during my first week because this was my first experience working with children & young adults with special needs. In the beginning, I found it difficult to see the students need to put forth so much effort for the basic things that I, a non-disabled individual, take for granted: eating food, speaking, walking, and being autonomous. Many of the HMS students are non-verbal and it was awe-inspiring to watch them learn how to communicate in class, through various enrichment activities, and during their speech therapy sessions. I was able to witness all of these remarkable things that the students can do with their boundless potential. As the summer progressed, I began to feel a sense of hope for the future because special places like HMS School exist.

What was your favorite part about this internship experience?
At HMS School, I learned about a variety of disabilities. In addition to Cerebral Palsy (CP), students at HMS also have rare disorders that impede their motor and cognitive functioning such as CDKL4 deficiency disorder and Pallister Killian Syndrome. The one common thread is that each child has a unique story surrounding their birth and infancy. They have an incredible journey getting to where they are today. The stories of how the HMS families have persevered will always inspire me and stay with me. I’ve just been so inspired and humbled by their stories; I have nothing but the utmost respect for the students, families, and staff at HMS School.

What is the most unexpected or rewarding lesson learned that you’ll take with you?
Working at HMS has taught me the power of love and kindness. The students can feel it when someone is genuinely caring for them. In my experience, the students I’ve worked with respond positively when someone is holding their hand, stroking their hair, or will laugh when you make a silly noise. This has been truly rewarding to witness.

How do you envision yourself utilizing this new-found knowledge in your professional career endeavors or future studies?
We learned about the huge barrier to healthcare access once students turn 21 years old. I learned that the transition period can be very challenging for young adults with disabilities. Resources such as a stimulating education, specialist support, and long-term connections with their healthcare providers aren’t the same or available. In the adult world, these resources are typically scarce and more difficult to come by. Another challenge is that many medical professionals (including dental professionals) don’t have a comprehensive understanding of what this transition period means for young adults with disabilities. Changes in their adult environments can mean that they don’t have as much interaction with their peers or aren’t given the opportunity to engage in activities similarly to what HMS, for example, provides. Learning all of this has inspired me to research ways I can help. Perhaps I’ll contribute to healthy policy for people with disabilities someday! As a future dentist, I hope to be an advocate and friend and vow to do my part to ensure that these young adults have access to what they need beyond the age of 21.

Why do you feel that it’s valuable for more people to have experience working with students and young adults living with disabilities?
According to the CDC, approximately 26% (1 in 4) adults have a disability in the United States. It is absolutely important that more people have experience working with people living with disabilities. Service is one of the ways in which we can live in a more fair and equitable world.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in joining this internship program with HMS and Bridging the Gaps at UPenn?
It was an incredible experience and I would do it all over again if I could! Keep an open mind, immerse yourself at HMS, and make memories that will last you a lifetime.

Text and headshot provided by: Pratyusha M.