A study will explore the experiences of volunteers providing exercise programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, particularly during the pandemic and pre-pandemic times.
The project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), expands on more than a decade of collaboration between the UWindsor Faculty of Human Kinetics and Community Living Essex County.
The team includes Sean Horton, Sara Scharoun Benson, Chad Sutherland, and Jordan Deneau of the Adapted Physical Exercise (APEX) research group, along with psychology professor Jonathan Weiss of York University.
Over the years the partnership between Community Living and APEX has centred around developing inclusive community-based exercise programs to help improve the mental and physical health and confidence of people with intellectual disabilities and help shift marginalizing attitudes through volunteering and building relationships.
Dr. Horton, principal investigator on the grant, noted feedback received from some of the 200 plus volunteers indicated they experienced an increase in comfort levels working with people with disabilities — in some cases, moving them toward a related career path.
“We were hearing these stories from our former volunteers and thought this is a whole untapped resource we haven’t looked at systematically,” he says. “We want to know how it has impacted their work aspirations and how it has changed their interactions with people with a disability. Understanding their experiences with APEX can help us to ensure that future volunteers will get the same kind of meaningful experience.”
The research team hopes to investigate these results and explore how this can benefit the support community for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Karen Bolger, executive director of Community Living, has been encouraged by the long-term relationship with the APEX researchers.
“The University has really embraced the importance of our work,” she says. “APEX has been a trailblazer in the area of adaptive exercise and it has helped promote a sense of well-being, self-confidence, and acceptance for people with disabilities.”
Each person has different kinds of needs, says Sutherland, director of the Centre for Human Performance and Health. It is important to learn how to communicate with them, engage with them, and understand their situation.
“We then began to wonder how APEX volunteers were integrating these experiences in their lives beyond their APEX experience and that is what spurred us on to investigate it.”
Throughout the pandemic, Community Living has faced challenges maintaining mental health and physical well-being programs. The resources provided by APEX helped to overcome some of the barriers and adapt programming to virtual platforms.
The research team and Community Living are excited about where their long-term collaboration will lead.
“Our relationship with the university has been mutually fruitful. We are both learning from each other and have helped to further our mutual goal of inclusive physical exercise,” says Lori Huson, manager of supports for Community Living. “We couldn’t think more highly of those who have been involved in these projects.”
For more information about APEX, or to download its free Adaptive Exercise Manual, visit www.uwindsor.ca/kinesiology/APEX.