The old saying that necessity is the mother of invention has never been more true than in the past year. We’ve all had to find new ways of staying connected and continuing our work. When the pandemic shut down community-based day services last spring, staff in New Hampshire and Massachusetts sprang into action. They created virtual on-line services to keep individuals connected and working toward their community goals from home.

The result is a vibrant on-line community where individuals and their Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) can socialize, learn new skills, develop new interests, and become leaders. While managers and clinicians led all the sessions to start, DSPs and individuals have quickly become a driving force in developing content and running sessions. People are sharing their passions and expertise, and unlocking potential they hadn’t seen before. 

“…They learned to make adjustments in the way that they listened to one another, began to work as a team, and promoted respect for all when that expectation was not being met…I have watched people gain self-confidence, teach others what they have learned in such a brief time, and become more open, understanding, and kind…” Ameilia Peloquin, Program Manager

You might be wondering: how can a virtual service be a community-based service? 

Many communities of people with shared interests existed on line even before the pandemic. These communities have spread rapidly during the past year. Aspire Online can facilitate individuals joining online groups or events by providing DSP support to participate or stream the event. 

Aspire Online also presents virtual tours and demonstrations that are great preparation for participating in person. Many folks are anxious about trying something new. Aspire Online gives them a safe preview and a chance to learn about how things work. Exposure to new activities and interests has opened avenues for growth for many participants, who are discovering interests in the natural world, work opportunities, cooking together, book clubs, and different cultures.

“It’s really made a difference for us, for him and for me, and staff.  It really opened windows up that we never would have been able to experience before.” Mark LaFleur, DSP

Friendships are blooming. Participants are making plans to share activities beyond Aspire Online, expanding their social networks. Individuals and their DSPs are sharing vital information about meaningful, safe, and low cost activities taking place in the community and online, enriching everyone’s experiences. Developing these services has also brought staff together from across the states where Aspire operates to share challenges and resources. For everyone hunkering down this winter, virtual services are a lifeline.

Although their development was a response to stay-at-home orders, virtual services have become a new option in flexible service delivery. Even those individuals who are still going out to work, volunteer, or run errands continue to access Aspire Online. Individuals can choose between community and virtual activities in the combination that works for them on a daily basis.

It turns out that we’re not the only ones recognizing the power of virtual services to transform. Recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disability Services published toolkits for state regulators to better support the long term use of online platforms.  

When things get back to normal, we expect that virtual services will be part of that new normal. Individuals may need or want to participate from home for many reasons other than the pandemic, and virtual services can increase equity in access to services for many. We’ve just begun to tap the potential of this new way to build strong communities by empowering individuals. And we’re excited to see how these services can give individuals more choices, more independence, and new opportunities to grow!


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