Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been able to stay updated about COVID-19 safety while maintaining social connections and enjoying educational activities through an innovative virtual program piloted by Cazenovia College.

With a New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council $20,000 grant, the program reaches about 30 individuals in Madison County, where Cazenovia College faculty, counseling graduate students and Human Services students have conducted online programming through the Fall 2020 semester. Not only has the innovative concept allowed participants to gain new digital communication and technology skills, they have also been able to stay connected to social circles and regular recreational and educational activities despite COVID-19 restrictions.

According to Mary Handley, Ph.D., clinical director for the Mental Health Counseling graduate program, the inclusion program’s educational, social, and technical benefits are helping to alleviate issues of isolation for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the community. In a virtual way, program participants are benefitting from educational enrichment, social activities, and technology training in regular online sessions that help them develop computer and technology skills, and confidence using online capabilities, as well.

Piloted for four weeks in the summer of 2020, the program was implemented for the fall semester. The grant funds the program all of 2021. The monies support administrative costs, staffing, COVID educational materials and program supplies.

Logging On, Joining In

From their home computers, program participants log on and interact with the program coordinator, college students, interns and volunteers several times a week. Program goals include improving online communication skills, promoting advocacy through education about critical topics, and improving awareness of services in the community.

According to Shiloh Wood, program coordinator and graduate student, various educational and social activities are offered online through Facebook Group meetings, including live cooking demonstrations, physical exercise routines, trivia questions and games, craft activities, and video chats. Virtual field trips provide educational value and homework assignments are formulated based on the outings. Updated information about COVID-19 and safety precautions are also presented each week to reinforce the importance of personal safety tactics, such as mask wearing and handwashing.

Improving Tech Skills, Confidence

Just as colleges, businesses, and families moved their activities online during the pandemic, the virtual sessions offer a remedy for the isolation that many individuals, perhaps particularly those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, are experiencing. As a rural area, Madison County has limited services and community options for people with IDD and their families even during normal times, while transportation and weather are additional complicating issues.

Dr. Handley notes that, “During the pandemic, people with IDD and their families have had even more restricted access to community resources and services where offerings may be limited or community facilities may be closed. And because many people with IDD in this community have other health issues, exposure to COVID-19 could be very dangerous for them so families are spending more time at home with limited opportunities.”

The College plans to continue the program beyond the initial grant funding period through financial support of a registration fee, private donations, and other funding mechanisms, Dr. Handley says.