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  2. Jul 13, 2022

Instructor Combines Passion for Plant-Based Eating With Advocacy Work for People with Disabilities

Food for Life instructor Susannah Dickman, MEd
Food for Life instructor Susannah Dickman, MEd

July is Disability Pride Month, established to help accept and honor each person’s uniqueness and see it as a natural and beautiful part of human diversity. As a former teacher of adults and younger students with disabilities and the mother of children with developmental disabilities, licensed Food for Life instructor Susannah Dickman, MEd, has found special purpose in sharing Food for Life classes with this community.

Dickman would like others to realize the benefits of reaching out to people with disabilities about the benefits of plant-based eating for health. “We can help show people in the disability community that they do not have to succumb to illness as they age,” she says. “Eating more plant-based foods can help them improve their health and allow them to do the things that are important to them. The benefits are tremendous.”  

We recently had an opportunity to catch up with Dickman to ask her a bit more about this work that, as she says, combines two of her passions: plant-based eating and advocacy for people living with a disability.

Q. Can you tell us a little more about how you became engaged with people with disabilities?

A. As an educator, I spent most of my career teaching children and young adults with disabilities. I enjoyed teaching very much. I was able to see the challenges as well as the accomplishments of so many individuals and felt a great deal of gratitude to be a part of their lives. 

With the birth of my first child, I then became a parent of a son with a developmental disability. My passion for advocacy was intensified. I had two more sons, one of whom also has developmental disabilities. 

My husband and I dedicated our professional and personal time working to bring awareness, respect, and hopefully some systemic change to the institutions and organizations that traditionally serve persons with disabilities, holding them accountable and making certain that their clients can determine what is best for themselves. 

One important part of our advocacy for persons with disabilities is health. As a family, we always believed in eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and as few processed foods as possible. In our work with other parents who had children with disabilities, we came to see that the impact of good and poor nutrition was even more important. Our family became plant-based in 2012, and all of us have benefited physically, cognitively, and emotionally. 

Disability Pride Month for our family is an extension of that advocacy we began when our first son was born. 

Q. Do you have any organizations you work with for your advocacy work or Food for Life classes?

A. We have an organization in our area called Smile on Down Syndrome. This is a parent organization that provides support to other parents and organizes activities for children and adults with Down syndrome and autism. The director is someone that I know because both of us have children with disabilities. I contacted her about having Food for Life classes, and she was very interested. She was able to secure a grant to fund the classes. I taught two different five-class series, one at night and one on Saturdays. 

Q. What do you plan to do next?

A. I hope to continue to teach in the future, not only with this group but with other groups that work with people with disabilities in our community. I am looking for grants to continue to serve people with disabilities. 

Q. Is there anything unique about teaching people with disabilities like Down syndrome?

A. When I teach classes for people with disabilities, I take more time to find out what they like in terms of taste and texture. For example, there were times when I had to alter recipes to meet my sons’ sensory needs. My oldest son does not like soft foods;he can tolerate them if he has a crunchy food to go along with it. My other son likes spicy and sour foods, so I can add acidity or heat to his food after it is cooked. 

This ended up preparing me to help other parents of children with disabilities consider adopting a plant-based diet. I liken this to alterations that any recipe has for a person’s allergies, likes, ordislikes regarding textures, tastes, and spices. 

Most of the material that I use in teaching individuals with disabilities is somewhat modified to meet their cognitive and emotional needs. Or I provide appropriate accommodations regarding their disabilities. However, most of the material that we teach in Food for Life applies to everyone, disability or not. The kids curriculum was great. I made only a few modifications to make the material age appropriate for adults with developmental disabilities. 

Q. Are there any particular benefits to these classes?

A. Beyond the physical and emotional benefits that anybody gets from this program, teaching these classes for people with disabilities is directly in line with the whole notion of self-determination, which means, “I make decisions about what I am going to do and how I am going to feel.”

I feel like I am empowering people with disabilities to make better, more informed, and self-determining decisions about how their lives are going to be. 

Q. What else would you like to share about your work as a Food for Life instructor and with people with disabilities?

A. This is a population that we often do not think about reaching in our classes. But it is a population of people who grapple with the same health concerns that anyone else does. 

For my family, after seeing my mom and my husband’s parents grapple with heart attacks and strokes, I did not want my sons to have additional health problems to have to cope with as they age. My husband and I also realized that we needed to stay healthy to support them. 

I think having Food for Life classes for persons with disabilities will not only help them, but their families as well. 

I know that food is personal, and we have so many prior memories tied to what we eat. Changing your diet and adding new food memories is not easy for any of us, and sometimes our children and adults with disabilities may have a harder time changing their dietary preferences. 

It may be challenging, at times, for us to guide them to healthierchoices, but through my experiences as a parent of sons with disabilities as well as a Food for Life instructor who has taught classes to persons with disabilities and their parents, I am convinced it is an essential part of what I do and who I reach out to.

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