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% of adults with disabilities always or usually getting social and emotional support


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Story Behind the Curve

Last updated: February 2023

Author: Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Vermont Department of Health

Research on social relationships and health shows that strong social and emotional support systems help to reduce the negative effects of stress on the immune system and helps support better health.  Monitoring the level of social and emotional support that individuals feel in their community is therefore an important indicator for our public health system of overall function and support.   

By comparison the % of adults in Vermont without a disability reporting that they always or usually get social and emotional support is higher than those with a disability. This provides important context to this data and allows us to understand where disparities exist and where we can focus our reasources to ensure all Vermonters have social and emotional support.

This question has been asked every two years since 2010 and annually before that.  

Why Is This Important?

In 2020, 23% of adults in Vermont report having a disability (based on Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey data). Vermonters with a disability often face significant disparities in health and health outcomes compared to Vermonters without a disability.  Chronic disease rates are much higher and social determinants of health such as income and education are often much lower.  Rates of risky health behaviors such as smoking and lack of recommended physical activity are higher in individuals with disabilities compared to those without a disability.  Rates of depression and mental health disorders are also significantly higher in Vermonters with disabilities compared to those without a disability.  

Due to the influence of social and emotional support on quality of life, social support has been identified by Healthy People 2020 as a key social determinant of the nation’s health.  Community resources and supportive systems that improve quality of life can have a significant influence on population health outcomes.  For example, social and emotional support systems have been found to be protective of health and are associated with lower levels of depression and stronger resilience to stress.  Research has shown that social relationships and support affect mental health, health behavior, and physical health.  Vermonters with disabilities experience significant health disparities and face particular challenges and stressors to feeling well and achieving high quality of health.  This indicator is helpful in assessing the social and emotional support that Vermonters with disabilities are receiving to ensure they have as equal an opportunity to good health as Vermonters without disabilities do.    


Along with programs and support services available through the Vermont Agency of Human Services (AHS), there are numerous disability outreach organizations in Vermont driven by passionate leaders that are experts in their field of work.  These organizations have well established relationships and have a clear understanding of the needs and barriers for individuals with disabilities to achieving good health.  Collaboration between AHS programs and disability outreach groups support sustainable change and greater impact in building emotional and social support systems for individuals with disabilities.  Partners include:


  • Brain Injury Association of Vermont:  Advises on unique needs of individuals who have brain injuries.
  • Center on Disability and Community Inclusion, the University of Vermont:  Provides resources and research on disability and health topics to guide program work. 
  • Disability Rights Vermont:  Promotes the rights of individuals with disabilities to ensure just treatment and equal access to care.
  • Division of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Vermont Department of Health:  Promotes healthy lifestyle opportunities to reduce or prevent chronic diseases and integrates programming that is inclusive and accessible to individuals with disabilities. 
  • Health Equity, Vermont Department of Health:  Promotes equal access and opportunity for all individuals, including those with disabilities, to achieve their greatest level of health possible.
  • Green Mountain Self-Advocates:  Promotes the self-empowerment of individuals with developmental disabilities and educates on the strengths and needs of individuals with developmental disabilities.
  • Special Olympics Vermont:  Advises on the health status and needs of participating athletes with intellectual disabilities.
  • Vermont Center for Independent Living:  Provides services and programs to help individuals with disabilities receive care and needed support in their own homes.
  • Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL):  The Divisions of Adult Services, Developmental Disabilities Services, Vocational Rehabilitation and others provide support to individuals with disabilities and individuals growing old in Vermont to live with accessible and quality care.
  • Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council:  Advises on public policy development, leadership training, and broader systems change to address critical issues affecting individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. 
  • Vermont Family Network:  Advises on the needs of families raising children with special health needs.
What Works

A study on social support and resilience shows that social and emotional support benefits mental and physical health.  The social environment and supports include interactions with family, friends, peers, coworkers and others in the community and creates a sense of belonging and security. 

Organized support systems such as self-advocacy and peer mentor groups can effectively assist development of relationships and facilitates opportunity for social connection, peer support*, and self-empowerment:

A variety of community sources can contribute to an individual’s social support network:

  • Familial relationships such as parents, spouses, siblings, and children.
  • Friends, peers, and neighbors
  • Caregivers
  • Religious groups
  • Support groups

* Peer support: support that people with lived experience of a particular disability are able to give one another.  Peer support is mutually offered and reciprocal, allowing both peers who are giving or receiving it to benefit.


Although the Vermont Department of Health isn’t directly involved in facilitating peer support groups or mentor groups, it has partnerships with Vermont organizations with expertise in facilitating peer and mentor support opportunities.  For example, Green Mountain Self-Advocates has 26 peer-led groups organized throughout the state for individuals with developmental disabilities to establish new relationships, work with peer mentors, and learn life skills through educational workshops and meetings.  Vermont Special Olympics provides opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities across the life span to train and participate in individual and team sports, building confidence, positive self-image, and sense of community among athletes.  Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports empowers people with cognitive, developmental, physical and emotional disabilities through engagement in inclusive sports and recreational programming year-round throughout Vermont. 

The Division of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP) is working closely with a state-wide chronic disease and disability advisory group to build out capacity within its chronic disease programs and better integrate individuals with disabilities.  The group consists of a variety of disability advocacy organizations in addition to representation . With guidance and collaboration among advisory group members and HPDP, chronic disease prevention resources and materials will be more accessible to Vermonters with disabilities.  Advisory group organizations have well established relationships among one another and are deeply connected to Vermont’s community of individuals with disabilities.  Through two-way collaboration, we can meet Vermonters with disabilities where they are already actively engaged and provide access and opportunity to health programming that is inclusive, accessible, and culturally relevant.

Notes on Methodology

In 2016 the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) disability definition changed to include anyone who reports serious difficulty seeing, hearing, walking or climbing stairs, dressing or bathing, concentrating or making decisions, or who, because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition has difficulty doing errands alone.  Previously the BRFSS defined disability as activity limitations due to physical, emotional or mental problems OR any health problem that requires use of special equipment.  While the percent of Vermonters reporting a disability was similar between the 2015 and 2016 definitions, comparisons should not be made to prior years.

Due to BRFSS weighting methodology changes beginning in 2011, comparisons between data collected in 2011 and later and that from 2010 and earlier should be made with caution.  Differences between data from 2011 forward and earlier years may be due to methodological changes, rather than changes in opinion or behavior.

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