Long Island Behavior Analysis Conference

Thriving During COVID-19: Transitioning to Virtual Programming for Individuals with Disabilities

In this ever-changing health crisis, the world has been altered. Our daily patterns have been changed and the ways in which we connect with and support others has shifted. For those with a disability, maintaining a sense of community and human connection is more important than ever. Organizations that serve those with disabilities have had to adapt to the current circumstances while continuing to support their members. Particularly since members may have temporarily relocated, virtual programming has become an integral tool to continue to provide support. Vista Life Innovations, a service provider for those with disabilities along the Connecticut shoreline, has shifted from in-person supports to virtual programming when necessary and seen tremendous results.

Vista Life Article Summer 2020

Program Specialist Linalynn Schmelzer (top left) instructing several Vista members during one of her classes

The transition to virtual programming happened faster than expected. Vista began its internal planning, and as with many other organizations and businesses, by mid-March was conducting the majority of its internal meetings virtually using the Zoom platform. After learning who would remain in the local community and receive in-person programming and who would be temporarily relocated to their family homes, Vista was able to reimagine delivering their core programming virtually. After some preparation, the next step was to test – and then implement – this virtual programming for Vista’s students and members.

Tod Van Kirk, Vista’s Vice President of Programs, Services & Organizational Development, believes that offering virtual programming has been critical for the ongoing success of Vista’s students and members. He observes, “We have learned a lot regarding our internal operations and in our service delivery – both in-person and virtual. For one, we learned that the power of human connection cannot be overstated. For many of us who are more isolated than normal, ‘seeing’ people – even in a Zoom meeting over the internet – is extremely important.”

Guarin, one of the students in our residential transition program, describes how he values “seeing everybody – my friends – when I can’t see them in person. I can see them on the screen at least and feel connected.” Seeing other people helps maintain bonds and helps to serve the need to be connected with each other. Those at Vista continue to observe this powerful concept in programming with students and members and in internal operational gatherings.

Instead of simply “surviving” during this crisis, Vista’s students and members are inspiring others by continuing to build their skills. Another student who is temporarily located away from the Vista dormitory, Andre, describes the virtual programming by saying, “We’re learning the skills we would be learning there [in the dormitory]. Now that we’re learning it here, virtually, we can better our skills when we go back… We can reconvene where we left off, but with better knowledge.”

With ingenuity, a wide variety of classes and trainings that were formerly offered in-person have transitioned to virtual instruction. Vista students and members can take art, wellness and even medical training through Zoom. Lead art instructor, Samantha Smith, guides participants in private and group art classes. Smith admits to being uncertain about teaching virtually at first, but says, “the experience has exceeded my expectations. Even though the members are all in different places and not with me, the work they are producing is amazing! It is a pleasure to see them flourish in these unusual circumstances.”

Smith is not the only one to see individuals adapting to virtual programming. Program Specialist Linalynn Schmelzer sees the smiles of participants of her wellness classes every day. By incorporating music and dance into her classes, even individuals who “don’t like exercise” begin to brighten up and dance along. Schmelzer has added more dancing to her programming as a way for members to move together, de-stress and be creative with their dance moves.

In addition to these group classes, one-on-one education is still taking place. Shift Supervisor Norm Collins virtually works with students on their medication training. Collins walks students through a set of questions about what medications they are taking and the quantities, but the conversation goes beyond that. “The goal is for each student is to understand their health needs and to self-advocate for their wellbeing,” explains Collins. “It is also to have an individualized system that allows them to independently take their medications.” Collins is proud that students are continuing to achieve higher medication independence level statuses during this time.

At first, Vista’s virtual programming was meant maintain structure and routine, so many of the offerings mirrored their traditional programming. However, Van Kirk notes how, “Soon after we started virtual programming, individualization and creativity came into our collective consciousness. We are fortunate to have an unbelievable team of staff – and our students and members are just as unbelievable – together they are driving our efforts into new areas. From a daily ‘Friend Time’ group that meets, to a ‘Day Is Done’ group, to a ‘Vista Family Dinner’ – the creativity we are seeing is endless…and the impact continues to be powerful.”

For example, Day Is Done is a constantly evolving group that supports Vista’s students and members emotionally. One student, Nicole, describes, “Day Is Done means to me that I get to see everybody’s faces… I get to see the people in the dorm.” Participants in this group share a high and low point of their day, but the conversation is also an opportunity to laugh and bond. Day Is Done often ends with the group singing and dancing along to a well-known song. For Ashley, another Vista student, seeing everyone at Day Is Done is the highlight of her day. To Andre, “It’s all about that new beginning – it’s a new start. We start our day and we end our day together.”

While everyone would like to return to normalcy as states experiment with reopening, it is possible to provide impactful virtual programming that keeps individuals connected as friends, colleagues and part of a greater community. No one can predict the future, but it is important to continue to provide programming that is fresh and meaningful to individuals with disabilities regardless of the circumstances. At Vista, this means constantly seeking and trying new things… constantly changing and evolving.

We are all in this together.

“Today is another day… There are some people who are alone. This is an opportunity to reach out to them and see how they’re doing… There’s hope at the end of the rainbow…”

– the words of several Vista students and members

Becky Lipnick is the Organizational Communications Coordinator at Vista Life Innovations. For 30 years, Vista has supported individuals with disabilities achieve personal success. For more information or to schedule a virtual tour, visit www.VistaLifeInnovations.org or contact admissions@vistalifeinnovations.org.

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