Colleen Starkloff spoke to the freshman class of medical students at Washington University on August 17.  The 130 future doctors gathered in the Connor Auditorium to listen and learn  about health disparities among people with disabilities and what they, as the next generation of doctors, could do to ameliorate such discrepancies.   

Griffin Plattner, a second-year medical student who heard Colleen speak earlier this year, was inspired to invite her to return.    

Griffin and several of his friends noticed that they got very little direct education or exposure to working with individuals with physical disabilities in health settings. “None of us felt as if we would be comfortable performing a physical exam if we were to have a patient that may be in a wheelchair or have another immobilizing injury; I believed that should be something covered more thoroughly in our training,” Griffin explains.  “We also learned that individuals with disabilities have a huge disparity in health care treatment for this exact reason. Many physicians are not entirely comfortable with performing the full exam, or are unsure how to adjust adequately for patients who have physical disabilities.” 

Griffin was on the committee for the Medical School’s diversity week during the spring of last school year, which brought in speakers on a variety of topics, and Colleen was one of them.  

But Griffin believed that the entire class should be exposed to the topic of disability much earlier on, to at least begin to think about it. “Because individuals with physical disabilities are not always immediately thought of or discussed in terms of the health disparities and special considerations they face, we as future physicians should have special training/practice to adequately treat them.” 

Colleen began by telling students why she cares so much about disability rights, disability history, disability employment and general disability issues.  

“My career in Disability Rights really began when I met my late husband Max J. Starkloff in 1973, when he was living in a nursing home and I was a physical therapist there,” Colleen recalls.  “From Max, I began to learn about the barriers present in the general community, preventing people with disabilities from living productive, independent lives, avoiding institutionalization.”  

Colleen went on to point out the great changes that have come about over the last 40+ years to better include all people with disabilities in our general society, ensuring that possibilities for employment of people with disabilities are now on the horizon.   

Such improvements include accessible transportation options; access to education, housing, improved health care, and rehabilitation services and equipment; curb cuts; increasing accessible housing through Universal Design; and a gradual shift in public attitude toward people with disabilities.  That’s important because the highest number of people between the ages of 16-64 who are currently living in poverty are people with disabilities.  “We can change that number now.  We are SO ready for people with disabilities to enter the workforce and leave poverty behind!” Colleen declared. 

But Colleen also pointed out that these students could work with the disability community to reform Medicaid, to make it an empowerment program rather than a welfare program, with a few smart tweaks.  “Not an easy task”, she stated, “but one that we could use your help to achieve.” 

Griffin summed up the impact of her presentation by saying, “I think that we did accomplish our goal of building awareness to this topic early on for these students. We showed them how individuals with physical disabilities can experience disparities, especially in health,  that aren’t immediately obvious or widely discussed. They can now begin to think of ways they can better accommodate these special considerations for their future patients.”   

“We’re so happy that you were able to join us!” Griffin told Colleen. “It really seemed as if you captured the audience, and it was great to give them your perspective — things to think about that do not come up often enough in our curriculum,” he expressed in gratitude. 

Interested in having Colleen host a Colleen Starkloff Talks Disability public speaking engagement? Consult her page on the SDI website: 

 If your organization would like Colleen to speak, please contact Sharon Tucci at

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