Touro University Students Help Build the Future of Inclusive Health

Ignited by their personal backgrounds and a shared passion for serving others, a group of students at Touro University California recently developed a Developmental Disabilities Elective to better understand and provide healthcare for an often overlooked population. What started as a lunchtime speaking series expanded into a fully-fledged course with 50+ students and an increased involvement with Special Olympics, including volunteering at Healthy Athletes events and hosting Special Olympics Northern California (SONC) athlete speakers.

Discover below what inspired the course, the students’ respective motivations, their involvement with Special Olympics and some of the successes and challenges that they’ve faced. On behalf of SONC and individuals with intellectual disabilities, we thank these students for going above and beyond to create a more inclusive future for health!

Q&A with Touro University Students


  • Kim-Thy Nguyen
  • Joseph Choe
  • Presli Pilati
  • Farwa Feroze

*student profiles listed at end of Q&A

What inspired you to develop the new Developmental Disabilities Elective at Touro?

Kim-Thy Nguyen: I have a younger brother with autism and he is always on my mind when I think about how I can better educate myself to be a more culturally and structurally competent physician for patients with developmental disabilities. When I started at Touro, I noticed that our medical school curriculum (and that of many other medical schools, as I would later learn) had a huge gap in training future physicians on how to care for patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD), providing crucial knowledge on disability rights and laws, and navigating healthcare issues specific to this community. With the encouragement of several compassionate Touro faculty members, I set out to share my idea for the elective with my fellow Touro classmates and slowly built a community of student leaders who shared the same passion to improve increase disability awareness and acceptance in medical education. With the constant support and hard work of my passionate fellow Touro classmates, our idea of a small elective with a maximum of 15 students (which still seemed impossible and overly ambitious at the time) grew into a full-fledged elective with more than double (38!) students enrolled, not counting those who were not enrolled but came to certain sessions (as much as 50!). The success of the elective showed how much these issues need to be addressed at the level of medical school education.

How did you go about developing the course?

Kim-Thy: This elective was actually expanded from the lunchtime speaker series that we started the year before. As a first-year student (specifically starting in November 2018) who was looking for individuals like myself who were also passionate about working with the developmental disabilities population, I got connected with a second-year osteopathic student, Kat Winger, and a Masters student, Gianna Brown, from the Pediatrics Club on campus and we started organizing a brand-new lunchtime speaker series where we invited various guest lecturers ranging from a Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician, 2 Touro professors who were also pediatricians, and a parent of an individual with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to come speak on campus. At the same time, we were working with our Faculty Advisor, Dr. Kimberly Wolf, on creating an entirely new elective on developmental disabilities. Building off of the four-part speaker series structure, the three of us brainstormed objectives and came up with a mixed structure of eight lecture and panel-style sessions as well as thought of potential guest speakers to speak at certain sessions. Eventually, our group of three expanded to include three more members--Joseph Choe, Farwa Feroze, and Presli Pilati (a self-advocate herself who was able to contribute her unique perspective on what it is like to be an individual with autism and how to make the elective more inclusive and politically correct/culturally sensitive), who also helped us with the crucial process of writing up the course syllabus + objectives, course requirements, and finalizing the details of each session (main themes and coming up with more guest speakers). We continued the correspondence with Dr. Wolf in finalizing the syllabus to get it approved throughout spring semester of 2019 and finally got the course approved in July. From July on, Joe, Farwa, and I divided up responsibilities in terms of finalizing dates for our sessions, contacting guest speakers, writing up case studies + discussion questions, obtaining guest speaker gifts, being in charge of getting food for our sessions, and facilitating elective sessions. We also received a lot of support from our board members, especially Areeba Qazi, who was essential in reserving rooms and advertising for our elective.

Describe the course:

Offered mainly to the College of Medicine students for pass/no pass credit for the elective course, students from all programs at Touro are welcome and highly encouraged to attend any lecture to contribute diverse and interdisciplinary perspectives that are crucial to the future multidisciplinary healthcare team needed to care for the complex needs of this unique patient population. This lecture series is student-initiated and student-led by COM students who recognize the gaps in medical education (a nationwide issue) for preparing healthcare providers to face the multifaceted challenges in caring for people with ID/DD as well as the health disparities that manifest into barriers to medical care, community participation, and health promotion activities in the ID/DD population. The objective of this lecture series is to begin to prepare future health professionals to work with patients with developmental disabilities and their support network to provide comprehensive and effective care. The course content will allow students to build their capacity around appreciating early signs and symptoms of ID/DD, as well as identify and manage patients with developmental disabilities. Students will also become familiar with attitudes towards patients from this population, and how social structures influence their social determinants of health. The course features guest lecturers ranging from physicians from renowned institutions to empowered self-advocates with developmental disabilities from the surrounding community. These speakers included:

  • Dr. Kimberly Wolf -Intro to Developmental Disabilities (Touro University)
  • Dr. Clarissa Kripke - Ensuring Quality Health Outcomes (UCSF)
  • Dr. Robert Hendren -Evolution of Autism Spectrum Disorders (UCSF)
  • Dr. Miriam Menzel -Evolution of Down syndrome
  • Dr. Marsha Saxton (UC Berkeley)
  • Dr. Lannon, Angela, and Michael from the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes Ambassador Panel
  • Ms. Stacey Martinez (Associate Executive Director of The Arc-Solano); and Ms. Leslie Crisostomo, RN, and Dr. Hemaluck Suwatanapongched from the North Bay Regional Center-Interprofessional Panel

    Course Learning Outcomes:

    Organized, brief, clear description of course level objectives:

    “Students successfully completing this course will be able to (or will know, demonstrate, etc.)”

  1. Understand the general etiology, risk factors, and protective/resilience factors of common developmental disorders.
  2. Apply knowledge of typical development to be able to recognize developmental delays in the pediatric population.
  3. Understand and compare different types of interventions often utilized and implemented with a multidisciplinary team in the ID/DD community, and understand the lifelong trajectory of common developmental disorders and how care needs change over time.         
  4. Look at developmental disabilities from the perspective of structural competency, including the historical context of the disability rights movement and evolving disability language.
  5. Develop communication skills for interacting with patients in the ID/DD community and their families that is respectful and appropriate for their developmental level.
  6. Analyze the legal and financial complexities for individuals with developmental disabilities and how these impact medical decision making, and recognize the need for inclusion of individuals with disabilities in public health efforts.
  7. Appreciate how the osteopathic tenet of body/mind/spirit unity can be incorporated into clinical practice in order to facilitate whole-person care and optimize quality of life for all patients, including those in the ID/DD community and recognize benefits of OMT in this population.

Why is inclusive health and supporting people with developmental disabilities important to you?

Presli Pilati: As an autistic adult, inclusive health and support personally affects me, and I want to make sure that others who share my neurodiversity or who have other conditions that fall under the umbrella term to have as much chance to succeed as I have. Representation is very important and I feel it is often ignored that those with developmental differences need representation too. I feel that often I succeed not in spite of my neurodiversity but because of it, and I want to support others to realize their goals as well. I also think it is important that they get the support and accommodations they need to facilitate these goals as well.

How have you been involved with Special Olympics?

Joseph Choe: Our club’s initial interest in Special Olympics was a culmination of previous past experiences with Special Olympics and people with DD. When I first began medical school, I learned that Touro COM CA was approached to volunteer at the Special Olympics Summer Games in Los Angeles. This great opportunity fell through and there has been an absence of collaboration between the two entities since then. I, and a few other peers sought to renew the partnership through the start of a new-to-SONC program called MedFest, a part of the Healthy Athletes initiative. Since then, Touro CA COM AADMD has been involved in health collection, and volunteering for other Healthy Athletes events such as the Pleasanton Field Hockey Competition. Special Olympics even sent ambassadors to Touro University to be panelists as part of our Diverse Perspectives on Developmental Disabilities and Health elective. Our future goal is to kick start MedFest in SONC this spring and thus provide medical experience to student physicians with the DD population, as well as provide a needed service to the athletes.

Farwa Feroze: My younger sister has autism and her elementary school would participate in Special Olympics every year. My sister and all of her classmates would always have an amazing time participating in all the events and being involved in the community. Participating in Special Olympics has been such a great experience for my whole family, so I wanted to get involved with the organization.

Kim-Thy: I participated in the Special Olympics Health Fair for the first time at the Strong Minds station at Samuel Merritt University last year and it was an incredible and memorable experience. The athletes I met were so inspiring and full of zest for life! It reminded me of how much potential these unique individuals have and how important it is to bring out the best in them by optimizing their health and encouraging them to partake in the community events as much as possible.

What has been the most rewarding (or challenging) part about developing the course and getting involved with Special Olympics?

Joseph Choe: The most challenging part of developing the course and getting involved with Special Olympics is balancing our medical education with our extracurricular interests. Medical School is quite busy and can be very stressful at times. We have to squeeze in the course electives dates as well as volunteer dates during times that do not conflict with class time, as well as dates that are not near exam times, as this will produce low turnout. Specifically for AADMD’s involvement in MedFest, it has been difficult to find a Clinical Director that is a faculty at Touro University who has the willingness, capacity and experience to commit to lead a team of Touro students. Despite the challenges, it has been such a reward to meet and get to know members of the community through the elective and Special Olympics volunteer. It has also been a blessing to learn from community experts about people with DD, and it has prepared us to be more competent and empathetic students doctors for future practice.

Kim-Thy: The most challenging part about developing the course was trying to choose dates for the elective with the first and second year medical students’ busy schedules in mind and it goes to show how jam-packed our medical school curriculum truly is. Additionally, we had to work around our extremely busy esteemed guest speakers’ schedules, which required a lot of planning in advance. However, the overall process was very rewarding because I personally learned a lot from taking the course myself and learning from our guest speakers’ expertise on disability law, healthcare issues, and the progression of developmental disabilities. It was an honor to work with a wonderful and compassionate group of student leaders and faculty members who share similar goals as myself to improve the health of the IDD/DD population and makes me excited to be in a time where there’s a lot of progress being made in healthcare for this underserved and underrepresented population.

What would you tell other health students or professionals to encourage them to learn about the ID population?

Presli: I would first encourage them to remember that this population is not an abstract concept. Almost anytime I have told someone I was autistic, outside of a few cases one of the first responses was, ‘you don’t look autistic,’ which to me tells me that they think they can spot a disability right away. With some disabilities that might be true, but others are almost unnoticeable to anyone on the outside, but still affect my daily life in a big way. I would encourage these professionals to consider the next time they talk about these conditions as if no one in the room has them they might be completely incorrect and need to review their own personal bias.

Student Interviewee Backgrounds

Kim-Thy Nguyen:

 -2nd year Osteopathic Medical Student

-Primary Care/Family Medicine

-Co-President of AADMD

-Student Elective Coordinator

Joseph Choe

-2nd year Osteopathic Medical Student

-Co-President of AADMD

-Student Elective Coordinator

Presli Pilati

-2nd year Osteopathic Medical Student

-Political Liaison AADMD

Farwa Feroze

-2nd year Osteopathic Medical Student

-Community Outreach Coordinator for AADMD

-Student Elective Coordinator

Is your school, practice or healthcare system interested in getting involved in Special Olympics to expand inclusive health? Please contact Amanda Young at