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For Iowans with disabilities, virtual counseling a big help during crisis

High angle view of young entrepreneur in wheelchair texting on smart phone while working on a computer at home.

DES MOINES, Iowa — People with disabilities have made strides to become self-advocates, but the pandemic has hindered their routine connections with support services they still need.

An Iowa program aims to make sure these individuals don’t feel lost in the time of COVID-19.

Back in June, a federal grant allowed the state’s Human Services Department to offer free counseling, virtual activities, and help in finding resources.

Brittany Hershey, crisis counselor for the COVID Recovery Iowa program, said while the program is for all state residents, it’s especially beneficial for those with disabilities.

She’s doing the work through the University of Iowa’s Center for Disabilities and Development, a partner in the effort.

Hershey noted a case that stood out involved a person with intellectual disabilities.

“And they were explaining that it was really hard because they didn’t have their daily routine, you know, that was gone,” Hershey observed. “They didn’t have people to talk to; their family was far away.”

Hershey added through counseling over the phone, they were able to establish a new routine and mental health techniques for the person. Activities through a special Facebook page also helped ease isolation.

Counselors worry they can’t reach everybody in rural areas, especially those who lack the technology to connect.

Julia Ganda, another crisis counselor with the program, said although the program was renewed until late spring this year, they hope to receive more extensions because of the virtual support network they’ve established.

“We’ve created this sense of community and specifically, with our Facebook page,” Ganda explained. “It’s created this community that I don’t individuals may have had before. So I think it would be great to continue these friendships.”

Ganda argued it also will help to provide information about vaccine availability, as many disability advocates have expressed concern about access.

The Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council is another group involved with the program. Council officials encourage anyone having coping issues to reach out to the recovery team.

The partnerships have allowed counselors to reach more than 3,000 people with disabilities across the state.

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