Researchers receive $1M to study obesity, self-advocacy for individuals with disabilities

Two U.S. Department of Education grants worth more than $1 million have been awarded to researchers at the Life Span Institute. The projects focus on weight loss and self-advocacy.

Muriel Saunders and Amanda Reichard, assistant research professors, and Richard Saunders, senior scientist, received $599,467 for three years to implement and study a weight loss program for people with physical disabilities in Wichita. The project will educate participants about a diet for weight loss and weight management, and then evaluate the health outcomes of resulting weight loss. All three researchers are associated with the Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the Life Span Institute. Richard and Muriel Saunders also are affiliated with the Life Span Institute at Parsons and KU’s Center for Weight Management and Physical Activity, which will take part in the grant. Researchers at the KU Medical Center are also co-investigators on the project.

Glen W. White, professor of applied behavioral science, Jean Ann Summers, research professor, and Cathy Rooney Howland, project coordinator, received $598,770 for three years to develop a training technology based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. The training will provide students with disabilities at KU and Kansas State University the knowledge and skills to acquire the ADA accommodations they need to succeed in postsecondary educational settings. White directs the Research and Training Center on Independent Living, where Howland is also on the staff. Summers is with the Beach Center on Disability. KU’s eLearning Design Lab will partner on this project, under the direction of Ed Meyen.

Both grants respond to the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research field-initiated program of research. Institute projects support the full inclusion and integration into society, employment, independent living and economic and social self-sufficiency of individuals with disabilities.

Losing It

Obesity impacts all aspects of life, whether a person is disabled or not. Being overweight or obese are also independent risk factors for chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

People with physical disabilities have obesity rates that exceed those for the general population. They are more likely to have limited physical activity and to consume energy dense diets, which include foods that have a large number of calories in a small volume. But research on weight loss and management for people with physical disabilities has been limited.

The weight loss project will compare the effectiveness of a specially designed diet to a “usual care” diet. It is modeled on a highly successful three-year pilot investigation nearing completion in northeast and south-central Kansas on weight loss in individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including those with physical disabilities. That project was supported by a grant from Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Study participants will follow a diet for weight loss and maintenance, and will receive encouragement to participate in a physical activity program appropriate for their physical abilities. The cost and public policy implications of weight loss will be considered as well. Health care usage patterns and improvement in secondary health outcomes – such as diabetes and hypertension – will be analyzed through Kansas Medicaid claims data.

Getting to Yes

In addition to the other benefits of a college education, research has shown that people with disabilities are more likely to be employed if they complete post-secondary education. To improve their success rate in college, however, most students need to learn self-advocacy skills that will also serve them well in employment and other post-school settings.

The accommodations training technology project is designed to improve students’ self-advocacy skills and knowledge about their legal rights and responsibilities under the ADA. College students who have disabilities don’t always know what they are entitled to under this law, nor how to request accommodations from their teachers or institutions. While students are entitled to receive reasonable classroom accommodations, they must request them first.

The level of self-advocacy that students with disabilities need in college settings can be intimidating, though. In elementary and secondary schools they likely had teachers and school specialists arrange support services for them as part of their individualized education plans, in addition to involvement from their parents.

The project will provide information and training to students through a state-of-the-art interactive computer program that meets the learning preferences of college students. In the skill-based component, students will be able to practice requesting accommodations. The training segment will be delivered in a flexible and portable format suitable for hand-held electronic devices, such as iPhones and personal digital assistants.


Campus closeup
Paulette Spencer, Dean E. Ackers Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering, director, Bioengineering Research Center


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