Step It Up

Step It Up

UNT Diving Eagle
March 6, 2023

An educational psychology researcher is exploring what factors limit inclusive engagement in physical activity for individuals with disabilities.  



Learn how UNT researchers are finding innovative and interdisciplinary ways to advance equity in all areas of society.

Melissa Savage, assistant professor of educational psychology and faculty associate in UNT’s Center for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Health and Society, is researching a group that often faces barriers to inclusion in healthy habits: individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Despite laws that have been enacted to facilitate inclusive participation, many of the most popular opportunities — like the Special Olympics and community pro- grams — are still segregated.

Savage, along with colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have created a program called Step It Up to research self-management strategies to support individuals with disabilities in exercise and use that information to create effective, scalable interventions.

Her project began with a $30,000 pilot re- search grant from the Organization for Autism Research that focused on the individual factors contributing to adults with disabilities participating in physical activity, employing self-management techniques and social support through individual coaches. The study reinforced Savage’s belief that although it is crucial to build skills and capability at the individual level, meaningful inclusion requires a systemic solution.

Equality and access are there, but the social barriers make inclusive partici- pation more challenging
Melissa Savage, assistant professor of educational psychology

“Equality and access are there, but the social barriers make inclusive participation more challenging,” she says, adding that the next phase of the project will be a multi-site partnership with UNC researchers.

The teams will build on Savage’s pilot pro- gram, engaging with caregivers, support professionals, exercise professionals and community leaders to remove barriers to inclusion, shift perspectives and establish inclusive fitness experiences ranging from classes and programs to community events. She will work with CREEHS to recruit participants representative of the racial and socioeconomic diversity of North Texas communities and has already be- gun securing community partners including The Rec of Grapevine.

“Another big part of our work is to ensure we involve individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our research and find better methods to help us do that,” Savage says. “Learning from individuals directly and their experiences can support increasing healthy habits for all.”