With COVID-19 spreading over the past six months, Dr. Heather Williamson, her community and her university collaborators are adjusting their community-based research projects to address the virus’ challenges, especially for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
In one of her current projects, Williamson is working to address the digital divide experienced by individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Titled,
“Using Digital Citizenship Artificial Intelligence (DCAI) Software to Promote Independence and Community Living of Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities within Online Environments,” the project is focused on building skills and resources for individuals with IDD to become active members in technology based spaces.
During COVID-19, the project team has been completing a secondary data analysis to the National Youth Longitudinal Transition Study to identify gaps in digital citizenship knowledge among individuals with IDD.
The team discovered that youth with IDD, compared to their peers without disabilities, are 62 percent less likely to have access to high-speed internet at home and 63 percent less likely to use technology to connect with their friends.
Service during COVID-19
During the past six months, Williamson has also been serving on a COVID-19 relief grant review committee for the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council and The Arc of Arizona.
“We received so many creative project proposals from disability providers from all over Arizona that are finding meaningful ways for the individuals with IDD they serve to stay engaged with their communities through technology,” Williamson said. “Their ideas really inspired me to think more creatively about the community-based work I do both now and also in the future.”
Williamson is also working on a Partnership for Native American Cancer Prevention project focused on improving cancer screening rates for women with IDD. Due to COVID-19, they are now developing resources that will be available to women using a hybrid approach with women being able to access the educational resources from the safety of their own homes either through web-based programs or through a phone-facilitated education program.
Weaving life together
More than 20 years ago, Williamson started her career as an occupational therapist. After working as an occupational therapist for individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, she got involved in the field of public health through community-engaged research and education working to prevent injuries to children.
“Once I learned about public health and the impact of research, I decided to return to school to get my doctoral degree in public health, so I could focus my research on impacting health equity for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” she said.
In 2015, she earned her Doctorate of Public Health, Community and Family Health from the University of South Florida in 2015. She then moved to Flagstaff and has been an assistant professor at the Center for Health Equity Research (CHER) and the Department of Occupational Therapy at NAU for the past four years.
“At Northern Arizona University, my life has brought me full circle to a job where I get to teach and mentor future occupational therapists while also engaging in health equity focused community-based research alongside individuals with IDD, their families and providers,” she said.
Williamson now focuses on three areas of research––individuals with intellectual and developmental disability, family caregivers, and community-engaged research.
She also makes sure to give back to the communities she is involved in.
She recently collaborated on papers on a variety of topics including: defining a role for occupational therapy in foster care transition programming; belonging and inclusion during the aging processes for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities; cancer treatment and survivorship among people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the US; and the best practices for community-engaged and inclusive research approaches.
Williamson has served as a grant reviewer for the American Occupational Therapy Foundation Implementation Science Grants. This year, she was elected to the board of directors for the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). In this role, she is looking forward to contributing at the national level to support AAIDD’s mission to “promote progressive policies, sound research, effective practices, and universal human rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
“It’s such a joy to have Heather working with us as part of the Center for Health Equity Research, said Regent’s Professor Julie Baldwin, director of CHER. “I have had the privilege of knowing and working with Heather for several years – first in Tampa, Florida and now here in Flagstaff. She is one of the most dedicated community-based researchers that I have ever known and ensures that all of her work has direct benefit to her community partners and the people for whom she serves. We are so fortunate to have her here working with us in CHER and at NAU.”