For several weeks now, schools, businesses, and community programs have been working tirelessly to implement high-quality virtual operations, and keep essential employees safe at work. I would like to start by commending the resilience and tenacity of so many employees. Your adaptability and positivity is admirable in the face of rapidly changing circumstances. I would especially like to thank the essential workers for the care, service, and resources they continue to provide for all of us. You are seen and appreciated.

In the midst of this unpredictable occupational landscape, I want to highlight the contributions and adaptations of community education programs for adults with disabilities. Despite being unable to meet in person during this time, these programs are continuing to further lifelong learning, promote self-advocacy, provide resources, and virtually convene beloved communities to support their participants. Two specific programs involved in these efforts are the Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center (Seattle, WA), and The Aurelia Foundation – Creative Steps (Santa Monica, CA). Staff members from both programs have kindly offered insight into their missions and current operations via Zoom interviews.

The Alyssa Burnett Center offers classes and excursions to promote lifelong learning for adults with disabilities. By providing a variety of classes, and maintaining a structured schedule with a few core classes, they offer fun and functional opportunities for all participants. Their class topics include art, music, fitness, culture, social skills, cooking, outdoor rec, and community excursions. Recreational Therapist Whitney Ferguson explained that adapting classes to a virtual format has been a whirlwind, but the ABC is now settling into a routine. Currently, they’re providing virtual curriculum (including one-on-one instruction), connecting with their participants on social media, and setting up zoom meetings for their students to spend time together.

Creative Steps is a community integration program that seeks to foster meaningful experiences and community acceptance for adults with disabilities. They focus on teaching life skills, job skills, and social skills, in addition to offering fun recreational opportunities for their participants. Through workshops with local artists and musicians, and visits to museums and historic sites, Creative Steps also integrates culture and community interaction in their programming. Founder and Director Lisa Szilagyi explained the needs their program must continue to meet as they adapt their curriculum. Because approximately half of their clients need support at home, they’ve instituted protocols for safe continued home care. Additionally, they are offering virtual classes and facilitating social connection among their participants.

Both of these organizations fulfill a vital need: high-quality programming for adults with disabilities. When asked about this need, Whitney and Lisa both expressed the drop-off in services as individuals with disabilities transition out of the school system. Specifically, Whitney explained a need for more comprehensive behavior interventions in the future, so that all adults can participate in these programs. Lisa emphasized that being a member of the community requires different skills and routines than being a student, further highlighting a need for engaging programming to continue into adulthood. To meet these needs, both organizations have created programs to promote job skills, social opportunities, arts, culture, and self-advocacy.

From a health psychology perspective, this multifaceted approach to program design is a successful one, as it can positively impact the health of participants. According to the biopsychosocial model of health, physical, psychological, and social wellbeing are all significant contributors to health. By creating opportunities and connecting participants to resources in all three domains, organizations like the ABC and Creative Steps further holistic health for adults with disabilities. Examples of this model include fitness classes, art and music therapy, and community outings.

To go a step further, these programs include a cultural component with trips to local museums, or classes such as Musical Journeys and Around the World. The field of health psychology proposes that health programs can be even more effective if they are grounded in the culture of their participants. Thus, by including a variety of cultural components in their programming, these two programs have made their opportunities even more accessible to a diverse population of adults with disabilities.

In addition, programs like these teach social skills and promote social opportunities for their participants. By cultivating a community within their program, practicing social skills, and going out into the local community, these programs facilitate opportunities for participants to expand their social network and receive social support. Health psychologists have found social support to be highly health-protective, whether that is by impacting physiological processes, modifying behavioral processes, or mitigating stress physiology. By any of those mechanisms, this emphasis on social programming can enhance social support through friendship and positive community interactions, which are mutually beneficial to the participants’ health and the community’s understanding. Especially in this time, as participants may feel isolated or out of their routines, the work these programs are doing to virtually foster a sense of community is so important.

Finally, these programs offer training in job skills, and opportunities to seek employment. This is vital, because health psychologists include occupational role maintenance as one component of healthy adaptation to a diagnosis. First, it is important to note that the definition of occupation can vary greatly between individuals. Numerous components including life skills, recreation, social participation, employment, and education make up an individual’s occupation, and these programs provide opportunities across all of these sectors. Their job training programs are especially notable because obtaining a job, for those interested and able, can be a powerful step toward community integration and self-advocacy.

In conclusion, any successful program for adults with disabilities ultimately comes back to self-advocacy. Whitney and Lisa both underscored the importance of remembering that everyone has rights, feelings, and a voice. As Whitney explained, many of us are fortunate to wake up each day, put on whatever clothes we want, and eat whatever food sounds good. These are basic human desires that everyone has, but not everyone gets to live by. So, as a community, we must make an effort to hear the voices of adults with disabilities, and empower them as self-advocates.

Especially now, as we navigate the response to COVID-19, it is vital to listen to the needs of the disability community and bring them to the forefront. As a mother of an adult with a disability, Lisa powerfully described the fear that many parents like her are feeling right now. These are realities that must be noticed. As we continue to stay home, I encourage you all to be patient with each other, listen to each other, take care of each other, and appreciate the hard work that people like Lisa and Whitney are doing. By industriously creating virtual curriculum, the staff at organizations like the Alyssa Burnett Center and Aurelia Foundation – Creative Steps continue to promote health, joy, community, and self-advocacy in a stressful time for their participants. Big thanks again to Lisa Szilagyi and Whitney Ferguson, and stay healthy everyone!

To learn more about the awesome programs at these two organizations, check out these links:

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  • Carmen Conforti

    Motor Control Research Assistant

    Pepperdine University

    Carmen Conforti is currently in her final year at Pepperdine University, studying Sports Medicine with an emphasis in Psychology. She is passionate about sharing the joy of lifelong learning, movement, and holistic wellness with people with and without disabilities. Carmen plans to pursue a career in occupational therapy, where she hopes to create meaningful opportunities for each of her clients to thrive.