Each of Us Must Help Protect Our Community at This Time

/ March 17, 2020

By Bruce Davis

We’re all a part of this community … and our community needs us now more than ever. That’s because the coronavirus is a serious matter.  That is a simple fact that we must all accept.  Many people have accepted this reality and have begun to make the necessary adjustments to address the problem.  Professional and college sports organizations have canceled events that bring large groups of people together.  Schools and colleges have closed. People are washing their hands, using hand sanitizer, and sneezing into a tissue (then washing their hands).  People have even been doing their best to avoid touching their faces, which proves to be quite difficult.  Those who are sick are staying home.  Ironically, people doing these things are fully participating in their communities.  They are doing their part to address the coronavirus problem.

Even so, it may remain unclear to many people why all of this is so important, and why it has even greater importance for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Viral Infections

I encourage everyone to see a training that Dr. Rick Rader, Orange Grove Center Medical Director, recently did for the National Association of Direct Care Professionals. The video is approximately 35 minutes long.

Coronavirus Explained by Dr. Rick Rader

In this training, Dr. Rader explains that the coronavirus spreads easily from one person to another.  As the name implies, it is a viral infection.  We’re all familiar with the description of a video “going viral” on the internet. We say that because as people begin to watch it and talk about it, others hear about it and quickly go watch the video.  Before you know it, millions of people have watched the video, and it is an internet sensation.  Stating the obvious, the phrase “going viral” came from the ease and speed that viral infections are spread from one person to another.  This particular virus is spread very easily.

How Coronavirus Develops

Information about how the coronavirus illness develops and resolves is still being gathered.  However, from the cases that have occurred so far, the Centers for Disease Control has published the following information:

  • Person gets close to someone who has the virus or contacting a surface where the virus is living
  • A 2- to 14-day incubation period (someone has it, but doesn’t have symptoms)
  • Major symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue and fever.

Vulnerability to Coronavirus

A person’s vulnerability to coronavirus should be described in two ways.  First, we should understand who is most vulnerable to getting the virus.  Second, we want to know who is most likely to experience serious complications or death.

Vulnerability to Getting Coronavirus

Perhaps the most vulnerable people to getting coronavirus are people who don’t understand the risk it poses and don’t take precautionary measures.  Last week I wrote an article about helping people with disabilities understand coronavirus and teaching them the skills necessary to deal with it.  The reason I wrote that article is because many people with IDD simply don’t take the appropriate steps to prevent getting the disease.  The best way to say it is this:  ANYONE who does not wash their hands frequently, use appropriate sneezing/coughing technique, or doesn’t avoid unnecessary contact with others is more vulnerable to getting the coronavirus than others.

Vulnerability to Having Coronavirus

For most people who are healthy and under the age of 60, the coronavirus doesn’t appear to pose much of a threat.  In the studies completed thus far, the people most vulnerable to the disorder are those with chronic health conditions like heart or respiratory disease, diabetes, or other chronic health conditions or older than 60.  Because of the high rate of these chronic health conditions in the IDD population, many are vulnerable to serious complications and death from the disorder.

It’s Not Just About You

The coronavirus crisis is about all of us.  What we’re facing now illustrates how we are an interdependent community.  I have fought for years to make it possible for people with disabilities to become a part of that community.  If we’re all part of an interdependent community, we all have a role to play in protecting one another from the coronavirus. Every one of us … every race, nationality, religion, socioeconomic status, and disability status.  Further, those who understand this have the responsibility of leadership to help others understand it.

Leading Your Community

If you recognize the challenge we’re facing right now, YOU ARE A LEADER.  So, you better know how to lead.  Leadership involves three basic tasks or skills: Motivating, setting the example, and setting reasonable limits.  If you can use these skills effectively you can help others understand their responsibilities and become full members of their communities.


While leadership sometimes might involve setting firm limits, most of the time it means motivating others to participate in the community you are leading. As it relates to the coronavirus, a leader’s aim is to help people understand their role in helping others. In my experience, the idea of helping others is EXTREMELY motivating to people with IDD.  Many of the people with disabilities that I have known would fall all over themselves to help someone else.  I think their desire to help is driven by the fact that everyone is always talking about how much help theyneed.  Helping others gives people with disabilities the opportunity to turn the tables and help someone else.  In this way, many people with disabilities are well equipped to be great community members. If leaders couch the coronavirus precautions in terms of helping others, I have no doubt that people with IDD will answer the call.

Leading by Example

Among the most powerful tools you have as a leader is leading by example.  When the leader shows that they do the things that are important, others tend to follow suit.  Leaders who are hypocritical and do the very things they tell others not to do are ineffective.  For the people you support, demonstrate the good habits of coronavirus prevention, MANY TIMES PER DAY.

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds before and after each meal and each time you use the restroom. Make a HUGE deal out of it! See if the person will do it with you (See video of Bruce and William below).
    Video: Bruce and William: Handwashing 101
  • Sneeze into a tissue, throw the tissue away, and wash your hands. Make a HUGE deal out of it!
  • Do elbow bumps or “air fist bumps” to keep your distance. People might enjoy a new way of greeting others.  Do it with everyone you see.
  • Narrate your decision-making out loud when deciding not to go someplace where coronavirus infection is possible.

These are just a few things you can do to set the example for others and help them better carry out their responsibilities as part of the community.

Setting Reasonable Limits

Part of leadership is allowing people to have as much flexibility in doing things as possible.  This shows sensitivity to their needs.  With the coronavirus situation, it is possible that some people may insist on your taking them to a location that places the person and community at risk of contracting the coronavirus.  In these circumstances, it might become necessary to set a limit based on the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control.  The CDC recommends that people not be in settings where people are likely to be closer than 6 feet to one another.  Other settings where people can space themselves out may be acceptable.  Something like picking up food at a drive-thru might be acceptable.  For unacceptable locations, support staff or family members may also set a limit by stating their own discomfort in going there because of the risk involved.

Full Participation in the Community

Full participation in one’s community is about having the freedom to do things you want to do.  With that freedom comes the responsibility to look out for fellow community members. The coronavirus situation has given us all a great opportunity to help one another and develop ourselves personally. It presents an opportunity for people with disabilities to join that effort and be part of the solution.  We’re all a part of this community, and our community needs us now more than ever.

I appreciate so much Dr. Davis’ willingness to write about the particular challenges that face the disability community, the direct support staff and our families. This is a difficult time for all of us, but certainly more so for some than for others. May everyone stay safe and healthy, and may we get through this situation by working together as a community! If you have questions or concerns, please contact me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. Thanks for reading!

Bruce Davis smilingBruce Davis, PhD, BCBA-D, Sr. LPE, LPC,  is the deputy commissioner of Clinical Services for the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

March 17, 2020

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