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Designed for Action: Student Researches COVID-19’s Impact on Disability Support Services

July 06, 2022
Alayna Munoz at a conference

At York College, students aren’t just reading textbooks and listening to lectures. They’re working on community projects, solving real-world problems, and using their education to affect change. In Designed for Action, we meet the students who are making an impact outside the classroom.

Alayna Muñoz ’23 (Laurel, MD) has served those with disabilities since high school. Now she’s working to find solutions to issues brought on by the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended many lives, but one population still feeling its impact is the community of those with disabilities. Alayna Muñoz ’23, a Supply Chain Operations Management major at York College of Pennsylvania, is working to remedy that through her research into how COVID-19 has affected the disability support services field.

As part of her Presidential Research Fellowship project, Alayna originally planned to study how organizations that support people with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) use inclusivity to determine the direction of their agencies. The research would have involved creating an ethnography during an internship with an organization that serves individuals with IDD in the fall of 2020.

Shifting focus because of the pandemic

When the pandemic struck in early 2020, Alayna no longer could complete her internship. She changed her topic to focus on the impact of the pandemic on the IDD community. She conducted in-depth interviews with service organization leaders in the IDD field to learn about their experiences.

“It’s definitely something I’m very passionate about and hope to be involved with somehow in the future, though I’m not sure what my career path right now would be,” she says.

Through the process, Alayna learned that many leaders in the field face similar struggles, including a lack of resources, public policy issues, and a staffing crisis, especially for direct support professionals and caregivers.

“In many interviews, respondents reported difficulty in securing resources like [personal protective equipment], vaccines, and COVID-19 tests,” Alayna says. “I had read about barriers to accessing these resources, but there were other factors I had not considered, such as finding transportation for clients to get to clinics or vaccinating members of their families who they are exposed to regularly. Interviews can reveal complexities about issues and topics through real-world experiences.”

Alayna will use the information gained from her interviews as the foundation for Interpretive Structural Modeling, a research method becoming popular in the supply chain operations management field.

While researching IDD wouldn’t appear to fit with her Supply Chain Operations Management major, Alayna has seen many skills cross over between them.

“It overlaps in terms of general organizational or operational changes,” she says, “like being adaptable to changing circumstances and modifying operations to be able to serve clients. Supply chain management is a lot about being able to serve your clients the best [way] you can, being responsive to events. COVID-19 had a huge impact on supply chain and support services.”

A Presidential Research Fellowship scholar

Alayna chose to attend York College because of its Presidential Research Fellowship. The program provides a full-tuition scholarship for students who then engage in a four-year study of a specific question using a variety of research methods.

Studying the IDD field was a natural choice for Alayna, who began researching it in high school with a project that explored how nonprofits can serve their communities better.

“In that project, I also did a series of interviews with nonprofit leaders,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in services that support people with disabilities.”

For four years, Alayna also has volunteered with Special Olympics and has been involved in other IDD organizations, including Best Buddies International.

“It’s important to really explore your passions,” she says. “Even though this is something somewhat outside my major, it’s something I really care about, and that makes it really interesting to me. Any type of skill you develop can be applied in a different area of study.”

Note: Alayna was one of 10 college students recently chosen to receive a scholarship from the North American Rail Shippers (NARS). NARS chooses students based on their academic achievement, extracurricular activities, and community service.