Forming new connections during COVID

Posted 3/3/21

By KATHRYN POWER We are coming up on one year since the first shutdowns and quarantines changed the way we work and learn and connect with family and friends. COVID has made many things harder, and this is especially true for individuals with

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Forming new connections during COVID


While many people can work around COVID’s challenges, individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities do not always have the same options. They are more likely to depend on others for supports, including social opportunities and transportation, and more likely to have underlying medical conditions that make exposure to COVID more dangerous.

In other words, they are more likely to be isolated.

It is important to think about this as we observe Developmental Disability Awareness Month – held each March to raise awareness of the importance of inclusion in all areas of life for people with developmental disabilities. With COVID making inclusion more difficult, it’s also important to remember that challenges bring opportunities, and I believe it helps to highlight one that a local provider recognized and chose to pursue.

Last summer, as leaders at The Arc of Rhode Island were wondering how they could help clients connect during COVID, they came up with an idea: What if they helped people meet and talk online, not with just anybody, but others who share their interests? And what if someone made the connecting as easy as possible, helping with introductions and getting conversations started?

With their clients urging them on, leaders at The Arc made the idea a reality.

From one group known simply as “Saturday Chat,” The Arc’s “Circles of Connection” approach to building relationships has grown to more than half a dozen groups, and more are in the works. There are circles that focus on forming healthy relationships, family dynamics, issues for people who identify as LGBTQ, and there is even a group for individuals who are looking not just to get a job but land the right job.

While there are online groups for individuals with behavioral health conditions, they are not as routine for individuals with developmental disabilities. But that has not stopped people from wanting to sign up for Circles of Connection.

“It’s been an absolute hit,” Ken Renaud, associate director at The Arc of Rhode Island, tells us. “It really is evolving in just the way we hoped it would. People are developing friendships and relationships inside and outside of the circles.”

Renaud tells of one participant who was asked by his brother if he would like to go to Newport for the day. Ordinarily, such an offer would have yielded an automatic yes. In this case, however, the yes was conditional– he had to be back by 4 p.m. so he could take part in his Circles meeting.

We need more innovation and collaboration as we continue to cope with the COVID pandemic and champion the interests of individuals with developmental disabilities. It takes all of us – families, providers, advocates, communities, state agencies and others – working together to make life better and provide the work and social opportunities that these individuals need and desire.

Circles of Connection provides a great example. The idea was born at The Arc, with clients offering suggestions and input. But others have also helped, including the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council and the Rhode Island Foundation, which provided funding.

Renaud says new circles that are in the works will focus on topics such as favorite books and financial literacy. The Arc is also planning larger events for Circles members. The first will feature a guest speaker and will focus on wellness and the challenge of COVID fatigue. Who among us isn’t feeling some of that?

COVID hasn’t made life any easier. But Circles of Connection reminds us that there are answers, when we look for them.

A. Kathryn Power is the director of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities & Hospitals.

COVID, disabilities


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