Changing Needs of Individuals with Disabilities in Miami in the Time of COVID-19

February 4, 2021

The Family Navigator Program (FNP) is designed to assist families of individuals with disabilities, chronic health conditions, mental health issues, and other special needs in navigating the complex system of services. Based out of the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami, the program is free and available to all families. The FNP is funded by a grant from The Taft Foundation. Navigators work to connect families with appropriate resources based on their needs. Since mid-March 2020, following the implementation of COVID-19 pandemic stay-at-home orders, the FNP has worked with families to address their changing needs.

We conducted a study to investigate specific demographics and needs of families enrolled in the Family Navigator Program before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. One hundred forty-five families enrolled in the FNP between November 2019 and mid-March 2020 were selected as a pre-COVID sample to be compared with 197 families enrolled from mid-March to September 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 societal changes. Families were de-identified, and data on demographics and specific needs were extracted. Demographics included race, ethnicity, language, age group, zip code, and disability or medical condition. Specific needs included topics on which families required education and resources to which families were referred. Analyses demonstrated that there were no statistically significant differences in demographics before and during the pandemic, which suggests the program was very effective in transitioning to the COVID related demands.

Findings also indicated a significant increase in referrals to financial resources during COVID (OR= 3.019, 95% CI [1.445-6.308]). Furthermore, there were significant differences in families provided with education on the following: increases in federal and state programs (OR = 2.156, 95% CI [1.306-3.560]) and other miscellaneous topics (1.902, 95% CI [1.081-3.348]); and decreases in school systems (OR=0.531 CI, 95% [0.328-0.858]) and therapies (CI, 95% [0.345-0.825]).

Overall, analyses indicate these differences likely stem from the economic and social toll that the pandemic has taken on families caring for individuals with special needs in South Florida. It appears that at the pandemic's onset, families' priorities shifted to more immediate economic needs and away from therapy or educational resources.

The FNP has responded to the changing family needs, quickly learning new systems and resources and maintaining an equitable connection rate across cohorts. Navigators have been administering services by telephone or online, rather than by in-person meetings. This data is important to both exhibit the strengths and successes of the Family Navigator Program, as well as to guide the program's work into the future.