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Master’s student offers accessible nutrition tips to athletes with intellectual disabilities

Jacqueline Silver teaches nutrition fundamentals to athletes at Special Olympics Ontario
By: Brian Tran
November 29, 2019
Jacqueline Silver places pieces of fruit into containers of water in a food demonstration

MHSc candidate Jacqueline Silver shows participants how to prepare different recipes of naturally flavoured water. All photos by Alyssa Katherine Faoro.   

“I waited 10 minutes for someone to get out of the accessible washroom this morning – I think she was just putting on makeup,” bemoans Jacqueline Silver, who uses a wheelchair. It’s frustrating moments like these that people with disabilities face daily.  

Silver, a master’s student in nutrition communication at Ryerson, delivered five workshops this fall term on healthy eating to athletes with intellectual disabilities as part of her practicum placement at Special Olympics Ontario, external link (SOO). Her second workshop took place November 17 in midtown Toronto and taught participants mindful eating and drinking, complete with a hands-on food demonstration.

Five workshop participants take sips of water flavoured with fruit

Workshop participants try healthier, flavourful alternatives to pop and juice.

Health of people with intellectual disabilities rarely gets mainstream attention

Both Silver and her practicum supervisor at SOO, Karla Williams, believe that the health of people with intellectual disabilities rarely gets mainstream attention, much less resources and instruction from trained dietitians, who provide evidence-based nutrition advice.

“The reaction to Jackie’s workshops has been overwhelmingly positive. The athletes and parents who have participated have been so thankful for the opportunity to learn about diet and nutrition in a welcoming and accessible environment,” says Williams. “They loved the resources Jackie has designed specifically for people with intellectual disabilities to use at home and when preparing for practices and tournaments.”

Designing workshops accessible to her audience was a challenge. Many participants have difficulty reading. Others have limited personal budgets for food. Some participants have barriers to using cooking appliances due to their disability. To overcome these challenges, Silver used several strategies: incorporating hands-on activities, using more pictures than words, repetition and breaking down complex nutrition concepts into simpler ideas. Her workshop consisted of a quiz game, food demonstration and group discussion exercises.

Silver presents nutrition information using presentation slides projected on a whiteboard

Silver delivers a carefully crafted presentation with accessibility in mind for athletes with intellectual disabilities.

Silver says the highlight of the experience so far has been seeing her clients happy and engaged. She laments that while many sports teams hire dietitians to help them optimize their performance, athletes with disabilities rarely get this benefit.

“It was important for me to level the playing field in a small way, to give them the opportunity that they deserve, just like any other athlete,” says Silver. “They want to play sports too, they want to be good athletes and to be successful just like everyone else­. They deserve to have a healthy lifestyle.”

Ryerson master’s students Maria Ghobrial and Adrienne Tsandelis pour flavoured water for workshop participants

MHSc students Maria Ghobrial (left) and Adrienne Tsandelis (right) assist Silver in delivering her three-hour workshop to athletes.

Reflecting on her own experiences as a person with a physical disability, Silver encourages the Ryerson community to think beyond the physical aspects of accessibility, to consider the emotional experience as well. For example, accessible desks at the front of classrooms are often separated from other desks.

“You can’t sit with any of your friends and you’re completely isolated. I would often be sitting alone in the front without any of my friends. It was very lonely,” Silver says.

If she could change one thing to make things for more inclusive, it would be to get more people to think about accessibility needs as a first principle in event planning or space design. Silver hopes that by sharing her story she can help bring more awareness to accessibility issues not just to the dietetics industry, but to a wider audience.

December 3 marks International Day of Persons with Disabilities, external link. To learn more about nutrition and accessibility issues, follow Jacqueline Silver on Instagram @accessiblewellness, external link. To find out how you can help make campus a more accessible place for everyone, visit Ryerson Accessibility.

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