National Recognition for VT LEND: Improving Care for Children with Neurodevelopmental Disabilities

February 22, 2019 by Erin Post

VT LEND faculty, staff and trainees celebrate their Multicultural Council Award for Leadership in Diversity from the Association of University Centers on Disabilities.

The Vermont Leadership Education on Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (VT LEND) program sets the standard nationally for how to train culturally competent health professionals who are prepared to go out into the world and improve healthcare systems for children with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

VT LEND’s flagship training accepts 12 individuals annually – a cohort drawn from the ranks of allied health fields, parents of children with disabilities, and individuals with disabilities themselves – all of whom learn through the nine-month, 300-hour program how to forge community partnerships, advocate at the state and federal level, and collaborate across disciplines in service to children.

“They’re trained as culturally responsive change agents,” says program director Maria Mercedes Avila, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics. “They gain a better understanding of health disparities and the role that providers can play to advocate for change.” 

In November of 2018, the 14-member VT LEND team garnered national attention: They received the Multicultural Council Award for Leadership in Diversity from the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, the premiere organization for university centers and federally-funded programs focused on improving care for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

VT LEND was recognized for the “clear example” it sets on how to “diversify a LEND program at all program levels: faculty/staff, trainees and curriculum.”

For the federally-funded program, the focus on diversity within VT LEND has been intentional: In 2012, the program set specific goals. They wanted at least 60 percent of the trainees to be racially diverse, says Avila. For the faculty, they aimed to have at least 40 percent of the group from diverse backgrounds. The result has been a training that thrives on a robust exchange of experiences and ideas.

“Our content is more expansive so that it includes more perspectives,” says Mary Alice Favro, M.A., CCC-SLP, associate professor and VT LEND clinical and training director. Cultural competency and health equity issues are embedded into the curriculum. In choosing journal articles and other material, attention is paid to author diversity. The program has introduced adjunct faculty who are Navajo; through distance education they reach trainees in the U.S. Virgin Islands and have accepted their first student from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in upstate New York. For their work training individuals with disabilities to become change agents, Green Mountain Self-Advocates named VT LEND 2018 Ally of the Year.

As a result of their leadership on diversity and inclusion, VT LEND has become sought-after national advisor. Of the 52 LEND programs in the United States, VT LEND has provided consultation and training for 20 of them over the past year on topics including social justice in health care, addressing health disparities, and cultural and linguistic competence. This is on top of the 63 continuing education activities involving over 2,500 participants, as well as 598 direct clinical activities. New grant funding promises to broaden the scope of their activity. Two SAMHSA grants, received in partnership with Vermont Care Partners and Spectrum Youth and Family Services respectively, will expand Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training and Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) programs in refugee and immigrant communities. In cooperation with Andrea Green, M.D., and Stanley Weinberger, M.D., VT LEND has received grants to improve well-child care for immigrant families as well as behavioral health in these communities.

“We’ll be hiring a multicultural outreach professional to help identify and screen youth and young adults at risk for suicide or substance use,” says Avila.

Here in Vermont and across the country, VT LEND graduates continue to have a ripple effect. Students have gone on to graduate work in public health; they’ve started community-based organizations; some return to their work better able to serve children with disabilities.

“They make systems work better,” says Favro, “and advocate for change in a strategic and dynamic way.”