On March 13, 2020, JF&CS’s IndependenceWORKS Day Program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities made the decision to close its doors “until further notice” for the safety of our clients and staff.
Later that week, I remember having a conversation with my supervisor. In a very serious tone, she explained there was a real possibility that we might not reopen until a vaccine became viable. At this point in time no one was really talking about a vaccine, and many still looked at the virus as just a cousin of the flu. I still figured we would be back up and running prior to a vaccine. Oh boy, was I wrong.
Almost a year later, IndependenceWORKS is not open, but it is not accurate to say we are closed either. In our words, we are virtual. Our program operates during our typical hours and offers many of the same activities that we previously offered. The only glaring difference is that our clients are on Zoom signing in from the safety of their homes. Each morning our team of wonderful Direct Support Professionals (DSP) begin their day calling various program participants just to check in and say hello. Next up, everyone signs into Zoom for the first activity of the day. We are all greeted with laughter and smiles.
Isolation and separation are draining states we’ve all encountered during the pandemic. But they are far too familiar to many with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who have frequently been overlooked and excluded, even in pre-pandemic times.
You can actually feel the warm glow of friendship and camaraderie radiating through the screen. Throughout the day you will see activities like virtual field trips, history lessons, group discussions, exercise, and even dance parties. We’ve also been able to engage with the community through the utilization of volunteers. On Tuesdays, a local actor logs on to lead us in our Story Jam hour, and twice a month we see a fabulous volunteer group called the Artist Collective who leads our art lessons.
I’m sure you’ve caught on by now that my job is a lot of fun. I supervise an incredibly creative team of DSPs who could not have done a better job of pivoting on the fly as our programming switched from in-person to virtual. This team makes mundane subjects, like safety lessons or hygiene, something truly enjoyable for our clients. While we may seem like a group of professional goofballs when we get ultra-competitive during online Bingo or when we strut our stuff for a virtual fashion show, there is a deeper and more serious reason for our virtual programing— we’re focused on combatting those two scary words, isolation and separation.
Inclusion is always on the forefront of disability advocates’ minds. How do we ensure that the voices of people with disabilities voices are heard? How do we ensure that people with disabilities are a part of their community? How do we ensure they know that they are not alone? These are all questions that we constantly asked ourselves before the pandemic. Now this aspect of quarantine has added an even larger obstacle to the topic of inclusion. With our clients unable to attend our program, the virtual activities we offer are not just fun, they are necessary to prevent many from feeling isolated and cut off from the world they previously knew.
Many other programs similar to IndependenceWORKS made the pivot to virtual programming over the last year. To all of them, I say “kudos!” Inclusive programming is something we should continuously strive for, pandemic or not. I’m proud to be aligned with many other fantastic programs that continue to pivot together and ensure that no one in our community has to the do this alone.