For seniors and people with disabilities and chronic conditions, finding a seat on a crowded bus can be an arduous task. Able-bodied people often disregard the priority seating signage, leaving those in need out of luck.
Physical therapy student Jennifer Coviello and Sidney Kimmel Medical College students Kate Haskins and Erik Massenzio, with the support of SEPTA, hope to change the narrative. They conducted an advocacy project through the Health Mentors Program, a unique experience for students from Sidney Kimmel Medical College and the Colleges of Nursing, Pharmacy and Health Professions at Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University).
“The program strives to break down silos that form in professional education, so that these students learn with, from and about each other from the very beginning of their training,” explained Nethra Ankam, MD, Health Mentors Program faculty lead. “They meet in interprofessional teams with a community member who has a chronic condition, learn about their life, visit their community and home, help set wellness goals, and then in the last module, work on an advocacy project. The point is to get health profession students to think about the person’s needs, wants and goals, and to learn some of the tools of advocacy.”
Coviello, Haskins and Massenzio paired up with a volunteer health mentor who has dealt with osteoarthritis for many years. She shared her worries about the lack of seating regulation on buses with the team.
“Our mentor is an advocate for her own health, and she always speaks to helping and encouraging others to follow the same path as her,” Coviello said. “She brought this idea to our attention after she hurt her foot and had to be in a boot for a few weeks. Some individuals on the bus wouldn’t give up priority seating even though they didn’t need it. She felt that she shouldn’t have to ask, and these seats should be accessible to those who need them.”
The student team wrote a letter to SEPTA explaining their concerns, as well as providing some suggestions, Coviello said. They recommended using the bus’s sound system to remind passengers that the front seats remain reserved for those with special needs and updating SEPTA’s “Dude, It’s Rude” poster campaign.
The team quickly heard back, and SEPTA representatives invited them to formally present their ideas in front of the administrative board, including the head of customer service. The positive feedback continued, and SEPTA asked the students to work with their mentor to create a social media campaign about priority seating. They’re also considering the poster campaign and playing recorded messages on a loop.
Other Health Mentor teams have conducted projects on urging restaurants to turn down background music for guests hard of hearing, adding sidewalks in suburban communities, navigating the health system and writing letters about providing compassionate care in the emergency department. However, Dr. Ankam believes this SEPTA project has progressed the furthest in the program’s history, and she hopes Health Mentors will teach students the value of advocacy and how to make their voices heard on behalf of their patients and caregivers.
“I found this experience rewarding, and it showed me advocating for others can bring positive responses,” Coviello said. “I think a lot of people are afraid to speak out because they feel they won’t be heard, but we took action and change seems like it’s on the horizon. I also learned that sharing knowledge about health and wellness can help to promote change. Fall prevention for older adults is an important topic, and we can always make the community safer for everyone.”