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IMPACT Safety Teaches People with Disabilities to Protect Themselves

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IMPACT Ability Students

IMPACT Safety looks to return to in-person events when deemed safe.

People with developmental disabilities face a higher-than-average risk of assault, abuse and bullying. But there’s plenty they can do – no matter the level of disability – to boost their emotional and physical safety.

“Self-defense is way bigger than hitting people,” Matt O’Brien, an instructor and trainer with IMPACT Safety, said during a recent class. “Karate is really good for one thing. But what we’re teaching is really good for all this other stuff.”

O’Brien and his colleague Olivia Caldeira are working with about a dozen ARC Industries participants who signed up for a multi-week course on personal-safety skills for people with developmental disabilities. IMPACT Safety, a program of LifeCare Alliance, has decades of experience helping to empower vulnerable populations.

“It all starts with, ‘How does this person make their wants or needs known?’” Caldeira said. “It’s important to give people choice and a sense of control.”

Everyone, for example, can learn to convey a “stop” message, whether with hands out and a firm voice, or through gestures and expressions. Program participants get plenty of practice on that front when O’Brien plays the role of a shady guy making unwanted approaches. And everyone, whether they are able to speak or not, whether they walk or use a wheelchair, finds ways to tell him to get lost.

“Do you have to let a stranger get close to you? No!,” O’Brien told the class. “If you can remember stop signs, you’ve got 90% of what we’re telling you.”

Because people with developmental disabilities often rely on others for assistance with daily tasks and decisions, it can be difficult for some to realize that they have the right to set and enforce personal boundaries. “Perpetrators are drawn to people who are vulnerable,” Caldeira said. “We have to make sure people with disabilities are empowered. It’s about body autonomy for people who might not have had that.”

Letting go of a passive mindset also is important when interacting with caregivers, seeking help or reporting abuse. “People are taught stranger danger, but if you look at the statistics, it’s usually someone they know,” Caldeira said.

Sessions focus on safety in various situations and settings, and also include self-calming strategies to reduce anxiety and stress.

For now, classes are virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. But it hasn’t taken long for participants to get the hang of interacting with O’Brien and Caldeira on screen, and to embrace the empowerment message: During a one recent class, three people showed up in Superman shirts.

For more information or to schedule a workshop, email info@impactsafety.org or call 614-437-2967.

Published May 2021 in the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities “Dateline” newsletter.