Seeing Montana’s intellectually disabled population lead healthier lives is the focus of an upcoming initiative launched by the University of Montana Rural Institute.

The institute held a training meeting for facilitators of a pilot project called “14 Weeks to a Healthier You” earlier this month at Spring Meadow Resources in Helena. The program, adapted from a national online program, focuses on personalized diet and exercise programs for those with intellectual development disorder (IDD). Training will continue in June for facilitators, with the project kicking off this summer.

“We’re trying it with a few sites this summer and then have it available statewide next year,” said Meg Traci, project director and assistant research professor for the institute’s Montana Disability and Health Program. “We’re using it to build capacity for other health opportunities like diabetes prevention and adaptive recreation which are all currently available.”

The current online program offered through the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, worked well for people with physical disabilities but not as well for those with IDD, she said. The NCHPAD adapted the online program into a facilitator curriculum, and the Montana initiative further adapted it which partners in Bozeman, Butte, Helena and Missoula will use this summer, she added.

Spring Meadow Resources is part of the pilot project that it hopes will benefit its clients by getting them involved in health through nutrition, exercise and outdoor activities, said executive director Jim Bissett.

The program hopes to reach 100-120 individuals in the first year, Tracci said. The 14-week program fosters peer support and tools for making behavior changes not included in established programs, she said, with the idea that participation will increase the readiness of people entering those programs.

One major way for Montanans to get active is to head into the outdoors, but that can be a challenge for the disabled population. At the Helena meeting, Joe Stone, MTDH Program Assistant and founder of the Joe Stone Foundation, highlighted several pieces of adaptive equipment that can make outdoor adventure possible.

Stone suffered a spinal cord injury in 2010 while paragliding, leaving him an incomplete quadriplegic, meaning he is paralyzed from the chest down and impaired in both hands. The injury could have led to a life in a nursing home, but instead Stone has returned to several adventure sports and helped others access adaptive outdoor equipment.

“I realized I can do whatever I want. I just have to find a new way,” he said.

Since his injury, Stone hand biked over Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park and completed an Ironman Triathlon. He serves as a public speaker, and through the foundation, works to increase access to adaptive equipment for disabled people.

“The technology that’s come out is exploding, and we’re finding out that no one has hit the limit of what is possible,” Stone said. “It’s all about getting away from the pavement and how we get into the mountains.”

Equipment ranges from large to small. Adaptive hand-driven bikes, seated skis and special rafts can make major adventures possible. But a simple oversized tire that attaches to the foot plate on a wheelchair makes a big difference if someone wants to leave the pavement.

Stone pointed out that tourism is a major component of the Montana economy. When families travel here and a member is disabled, often the family must adapt the trip or that member is left out, he said. But adaptive equipment can change that.

Stone recounted the story of a family that wanted to float a river, but the raft company did not have the equipment to accommodate a disabled man. An adaptive raft got the man on the water, recreating in the outdoors with his family for the first time in 15 years, he said.

“It’s not about a piece of gear; it’s about the emotions of getting out and doing this stuff,” Stone said.

Major challenges of getting adaptive equipment are both awareness and cost. The small market of people seeking adaptive equipment drives up prices, although grants may be available, he said.

Adaptive equipment increases independent living, and recognizing health as a means to an end of reaching meaningful life goals, he added.

Stone hopes that even able-bodied people will focus more on using adaptive equipment. Rehabilitating in a gym from an injury could be replaced by outdoor recreation with the right gear, coupling exercise with the therapy of the outdoors, he said.

“The equipment has evolved and is now a great way to integrate peers with peers,” Stone said. “And in Montana, people are so eager to get out -- it’s what we do.”

This story has been edited to say that NCHPAD initially adapted the online 14-week program for facilitators and correct the spelling of Meg Traci's name.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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