Partnership study tests training for people with disabilities

Results indicate that participants improved their ability to successfully identify abusive or exploitative scenarios, even three months after training concluded

Headshots of (from left) Party Dinora, Ph.D.; Jack M. Brandt; Molly Dellinger-Wray; Elizabeth Cramer, Ph.D., LCSW.
Study team members include (from left) the Partnership for People with Disabilities' Parthy Dinora, Ph.D., interim executive director and principal investigator; Jack M. Brandt, disability policy specialist; Molly Dellinger-Wray, program specialist; and the VCU School of Social Work's Elizabeth Cramer, Ph.D., LCSW. (Courtesy photos)

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) experience sexual assault, abuse, violence and are victims of crime at exponentially higher rates than the typically developing population. The Partnership for People with Disabilities, part of VCU's School of Education, has been addressing this issue with several grants over the past 20 years.

There are few evidence-based abuse prevention interventions designed for people with disabilities available nationally or internationally. Most recently, with funding from the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), the Partnership worked with a team from the VCU School of Social Work to evaluate an instructional intervention called Leadership for Empowerment and Abuse Prevention (LEAP). Since the project began, LEAP has reached over 200 adults with IDD, and their research was conducted in 15 disability support agencies in central Virginia. The participants experienced mild, moderate and severe support needs in addition to autism and unknown disabilities.

The study, titled “Testing the Efficacy of a Healthy Relationships Training Intervention for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities,” found that people with IDD improved their ability to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and had a greater understanding of how to take action in an unhealthy relationship.

The study’s four-session intervention was taught by a trainer with a disability and a co-trainer. The curriculum was designed by a multidisciplinary team with input from people with disabilities, as well as experts in the areas of health, domestic violence and sexual assault, social services, disability inclusion and special educators.

“Not only are you training people to speak up for themselves, but you’re reinforcing that their feelings matter. That has a significant impact.”

The research team collected data from participants during three phases of the intervention. First, in a pretest and Psychological Empowerment subscale prior to the intervention. Second, in a post-test and subscale after the intervention. Third, in a post-posttest and subscale three months after the intervention.

Results indicated that participants significantly improved their ability to successfully identify scenarios that were abusive or exploitative, with the strongest improvement occurring even three months after the LEAP training concluded.

Parthy Dinora, Ph.D., interim executive director at the Partnership and the study’s principal investigator, said that very few abuse prevention interventions are evidence-based, indicating that the practical applications of the study findings are significant.

“Participants demonstrated an increased ability to describe abuse and were more prepared to tell someone that they trust when confronted with an unhealthy situation,” she said. “The entire team saw these as critical skills for addressing potential abusive situations.”

Even though OVW funding is ending, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services has awarded the Partnership a one-year contract to continue the training.

“I’m really proud to be a part of this project,” said Casey Leon, a LEAP trainer who has over 20 years of experience supporting people with IDD. “Not only are you training people to speak up for themselves, but you’re reinforcing that their feelings matter. That has a significant impact. People continue to talk about it for months afterwards and connect to the empowering and affirming messages of the content.”

Rose Sutton, a LEAP trainer with a disability, said that the program has made a huge impact on her and her family personally.

“I was raised in a time when talking about relationships was a private, behind-closed-doors matter,” Sutton said. “As a LEAP trainer, I’ve become more confident in myself. We openly discuss body part names, and private and public spaces. We emphasize that everyone deserves respect, and that you can say ‘no’. I’ve even used this curriculum for my special needs teens, to help them learn what healthy relationships are, as well as what constitutes an unhealthy relationship.”

The team members are listed below.

The Partnership:

  • Parthy Dinora, Ph.D., interim executive director and principal investigator
  • Jack M. Brandt, disability policy specialist
  • Allison D’Aguilar, research assistant on the LEAP Project
  • Molly Dellinger-Wray, program specialist
  • Seb Prohn, senior research evaluation specialist

The School of Social Work:

  • Elizabeth Cramer, Ph.D., LCSW, professor, co-principal investigator
  • Caitlin H. Mayton, doctoral student