A valuable partnership between Next Steps at Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt Dietetic Internship program provides opportunities for professional development and independence while addressing health inequalities of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
Individuals with intellectual disabilities experience significant health inequalities compared with the general population. While there are myriad reasons for this, poor nutrition and lack of physical activity are often cited as major contributors to secondary conditions, shorter life expectancies, and higher levels of unmet health needs. The partnership between the dietetic interns and students with intellectual disabilities enrolled in Vanderbilt’s inclusive higher education program is an effort to change some of these outcomes through nutrition education.
Katie Murphy is a dietitian in training and recently completed her rotation serving as a Healthy Eating and Active Living (HEAL) Coach for a Next Steps student. She is one of 16 interns who participated. Murphy says the rotation is important in providing her with the opportunity to practice nutrition education while gaining experience working with people with disabilities.
“I was a little nervous going in because I had never worked with people with intellectual disabilities, and I didn’t know what to expect,” said Murphy. “I didn’t know how we were going to interact. I quickly realized he is a college student trying to connect and learn and form friendships just like me. Even after our sessions were over, I found myself just hanging out with him and his friends. So I gained professional experience and new friends.”
HEAL Coaches took an individualized approach to designing their sessions and to teaching the students about the benefits of healthy eating and physical activity. They began the process with a survey to assess each student’s knowledge of nutrition and eating habits.
Six HEAL coaching sessions occurred over lunch and oftentimes focused on setting a weekly SMART goal around food choices, eating behaviors, and active living resources. Next Steps students and HEAL Coaches participated in a food-network-style teaching kitchen experience, which culminated in a healthy four-course meal. At the end of the semester, students were surveyed again on their knowledge of healthy foods and eating habits; all showed improvements.
“We observed much more awareness on these topics after the students were able to spend time with their HEAL Coaches,” said Tammy Day, Next Steps director. “The HEAL Coaches are a very important part of our global health and fitness message to the students. We all need to hear information multiple times, in different contexts, and in different formats. This especially holds true for most people with learning challenges.”
Day says that the partnership also attends to one of the primary goals of the Next Steps program–encouraging independence.
“The Next Steps students are interfacing with a health care professional independently,” said Day. “For most of them, this is a first. The students are getting to develop and practice self-determination skills in regard to their health goals. That’s an important experience and one that hopefully will give them confidence to advocate for themselves in the future.”
Dianne Killebrew, Dietetic Internship educational coordinator, says the opportunity to pair HEAL Coaches with Next Steps students is a collaboration with win-win outcomes.
“There are three key benefits for this group of future dietitians,” said Killebrew. “Our interns participate in a new way of thinking about inclusive education for individuals with intellectual disabilities. They practice effective strategies to educate and engage individuals with intellectual disabilities in healthy eating and active living, and they also find their own voices as advocates for access to health-wellness care. It’s a win-win partnership.”
Courtney Taylor is associate director of VKC Communications and Dissemination.
Lead Photo: HEAL Coaches assist as Next Steps students show off what they learned about healthy cooking during a food-network-style teaching kitchen experience