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Marren Leon-Barajas Wins First Community Living Research Award

Marren Leon-BarajasMarren Leon-Barajas has won the inaugural Community Living Research Award from the University of Kansas Research and Training Center on Independent Living (RTC/IL). Center Director Glen White, PhD, said, “We are happy to announce Marren’s award. Her proposed study will help individuals with intellectual disabilities who are overweight achieve two goals: to exercise more often and to increase their community participation while engaged in these weight loss activities.”

The purpose of the one-year, $2,000 award is to develop and use applied behavioral research to increase community participation for people with disabilities.

Leon-Barajas is a graduate student in KU’s Behavioral Psychology program from Kansas City, Kansas. She will work with three to five people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) who are consumers of Community Living Opportunities (CLO) in Lawrence, KS.

For Leon-Barajas, the award gives her an opportunity to change two things that people with IDD struggle with: their weight and their willingness to venture into the community. “I think that exercise and community participation are intertwined in some ways, and that increasing one may increase the other,” she said.

For the weight loss component of her study, she will evaluate the effects of self-management using activity tracking software. Worn like a watch, it will track the number of steps the individual takes and graph the results, creating a visual for the participants.  

“Self-management refers to a person’s use of techniques to achieve a change in his or her own behavior,” said Leon-Barajas. The participants in her study will self-record their community participation, and Leon-Barajas will meet with them regularly to review their progress, providing visual aids. “We’ll assess their understanding of graphs and charts to see if this visual component affects their engagement with the goal of weight loss.”

Leon-Barajas notes that many people have tried to give people with IDD an incentive to exercise, but they often perceive exercise as too much work. Using activity tracking software, she says, “We’re approaching an old struggle with a new tool. This device is cool, and used by many people, so that may encourage its use.”

In addition to tracking the participants’ exercise and weight, Leon-Barajas will measure their community participation, which includes interactions with CLO staff, housemates and members of the greater community. She expects that by walking for exercise, the people involved in the research will increase their participation: “By walking, they will have a chance to interact with new people, such as a neighbor who is walking a dog or a cashier in a store. Or they may simply observe interactions among other people, which gives them an opportunity to learn appropriate behaviors.”

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