UI professor simulates schizophrenia during class

BY DORA GROTE | MAY 03, 2012 6:30 AM

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Joseph Sulentic grasped a cane firmly in his hand and hobbled over to the whiteboard, calmly writing a question before suddenly turning around blowing a piercing whistle. Students jolted back in their seats confused as Sulentic demanded answers. Yet soon after, he was surfing the web looking for things to tweet.

As he was teaching, Sulentic listened to a 45-minute recording on an iPhone that instructed him to perform different tasks in the class, with students unaware. The recording was meant to imitate the internal voices people with schizophrenia hear.

"Things were going on in my head, and I literally couldn't hear what people were saying," Sulentic said. "I would completely lose my train of thought."

The simulation is a part of the program Access 2 Independence of the Eastern Iowa Corridor's effort to bring more disability awareness to Johnson County and the University of Iowa through a film documentary called Through My Eyes.

Sulentic's sporadic actions and personalities of an elderly person, a drill sergeant, and a college slacker during his social-entrepreneur class Wednesday resembled what a person with schizophrenia might experience on a daily basis.

"The older person was the hardest, because it was hard to relate what they should be like," said Sulentic, a UI business lecturer. "I tried to be understanding, but didn't know exactly what to do. I think it would be extremely difficult to stay on task and get things accomplished as a teacher with schizophrenia."

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects how a person, behaves, thinks, and feels. A person with this disorder finds it difficult to tell the difference between real and imagined experiences.

"We see them on the streets every day — the 30-something in the wheelchair or the elderly blind man in his 60s walking with his walking cane who is just trying to find his way to the local coffee shop," said Sujit Singh, the associate director of operations for the organization and the leader of the project. "Yes, we say hi to them, trying not to be in his or her way, but have we ever wondered what it would be like if we walked in their shoes?"

Nick Crandall, a UI senior in the class, said he was confused.

"I was taken back when he had the military personality and was shouting," he said. "I didn't know what point he was trying to make."

After Crandall found out his teacher was simulating the illness, he said it would be hard to sit through a class if the teacher had that many personality changes.

"There would be a lot more in-class disruptions," he said. "When he blew the whistle, my train of thought immediately went blank. With outbursts, it would be hard to focus on class material."

Sulentic made several students "drop and give him 10" when they answered a question wrong during his drill-sergeant personality.

Singh said the idea was developed from reality shows that are meant to change the way people see each other. Yet the mainstream media neglect to show the public what it is like to be in the shoes of a person with a disability, he said.

"They want to be able to go shopping, go to the movies, go out to eat, work, and enjoy life, fully, but for some, that is easier said than done," Singh said. "Some shops may not have accessible countertops, and some restaurants may not have an actuator button on the outside of their door."

Four more simulations have been lined up so far throughout the community for the documentary, Singh said.

"Life as a person with a disability has its difficulties, but it is all about how they break through those brick walls placed in front of them that makes them who they are," he said.

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