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Disability Rehabilitation Research Project

The Disability Rehabilitation Research Project (DRRP) titled Reducing Obesity and Obesity-Related Secondary Conditions in Adolescents with Disabilities is a 3-year center grant funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), James H. Rimmer, Principal Investigator.

The DRRP consists of three projects:

  • R1 – Conduct a series of secondary analyses using multiple data sets from population-based surveillance systems examining the prevalence, risk actors, and health consequences of obesity in youth and young adults, ages 15-25 years with physical and cognitive disabilities.
  • R2 – Develop a set of methods and criteria that can be used to systematically identify, adapt and modify existing evidence-based obesity prevention/reduction strategies and programs for youth and young adults with disabilities from culturally diverse backgrounds and promote their inclusion in community health promotion programs.
  • R3 – Translate the DRRP’s research findings for key stakeholders so that new knowledge can rapidly influence research, policy and practice. Dissemination and knowledge translation of findings will occur via the creation of an online Community of Knowledge Translation Practice (CoKTP).

Recent findings

Analyses of data from six hundred and sixty-two parents who responded to the first national online survey focusing on the health of adolescents with disabilities, “Health and Lifestyles of Youth with Disabilities,” showed that there are substantial health disparities between youth with and without disabilities, as noted by the prevalence of higher rates of obesity and secondary/chronic health conditions in youth with disabilities.

Overall prevalence of obese youth with disabilities was 17.5% compared to 13.0% for youth without disabilities. Ambulatory youth with disabilities had a significantly higher rate of obesity compared to non-ambulatory youth (21.1% vs. 10.1%).

71.6% of youth reported having at least one secondary condition. Common secondary conditions included gastrointestinal diseases, asthma, depression, low self-esteem, and fatigue. Obese/overweight youth with disabilities tended to report a higher prevalence of secondary conditions compared to healthy weight youth regardless of their ambulatory status.

Facts on obesity in youth with disabilities

  • Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), as well as the 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) comparing youth with and without disabilities, found that the rate of obesity (i.e., BMI = 95th% for age and sex) among youth with disabilities was significantly higher compared to their age-matched peers without disabilities.
  • Rimmer and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Department of Disability and Human Development, recently examined the prevalence of obesity and obesity-related chronic/secondary conditions in adolescents across the nation and compared them to data on youth without disabilities from the 2007 YRBS. Findings were:
    • Youth with disabilities reported a significantly higher prevalence of obesity/overweight compared to youth without disabilities.
    • Overall, 34.0% of youth with disabilities were overweight or obese.
    • Obese and overweight youth with disabilities reported a significantly higher prevalence of chronic conditions compared to healthy weight youth with disabilities including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, depression, fatigue, liver or gallbladder problems, low self esteem, preoccupation with weight, early maturation, and pressure sores.
  • Design of school-based obesity interventions do not address specific physical and nutritional concerns associated with a particular disability. Certain accommodations are necessary to enable youth with disabilities to participate in physical activity and nutritional programs available to their peers without disability.
  • It is imperative that we increase awareness about the obesity-related health disparities that exist between adolescents with disabilities compared to their non-disabled peers.

Tips for Motivating Children

To exercise:

  • Choose age appropriate activities to avoid boredom or frustration
    • Preschoolers need play and exercise that helps them continue to develop important motor skills – kicking or throwing a ball, playing tag or follow the leader, hopping on one foot, riding a bike, freeze dancing, or running obstacle courses
    • With school-age kids spending more time on sedentary pursuits like watching TV and playing computer games, the challenge for parents is to help them find physical activities they enjoy and feel successful doing. These can range from traditional sports like baseball and basketball to Scouting, biking, camping, hiking, and other outdoor pursuits.
    • Teens have many choices when it comes to being active – from school sports to after-school interests, such as yoga or skateboarding. It’s important to remember that physical activity must be planned and often has to be sandwiched between various responsibilities and commitments.
  • Make activity easy by providing accessible equipment and taking them to accessible playgrounds or programs
  • Keeping the focus on fun, as kids won’t do things they don’t enjoy!
  • Encourage practice, which improves their abilities and helps them feel accomplished.
  • Give acknowledgement and praise!

To eat healthy foods:

  • Start young. Incorporate healthy foods into your children’s diet early on. By getting kids used to healthy foods when they’re young, they will have already developed a taste for it and motivating them to eat healthy won’t be such a struggle.
  • Be an example. Studies have shown that kids’ eating habits are largely shaped by what their parents eat. Model good eating habits to your kids to motivate them to eat healthy by eating fruits and vegetables, healthy meats.
  • Make it fun. Make a smiley face on their plate with fruits and vegetables. A little creativity with healthy foods will go a long way with motivating kids to eat healthy.
  • Introduce healthy desserts. Kids love dessert and look forward to it, so motivate them to eat healthy by serving healthy desserts.
  • Take kids grocery shopping with you. Allow them to pick out healthy foods that are appealing to them.
    Cook together. Kids love to “help” cook and then eat their creations.


  • James H. Rimmer, Principal Investigator
  • Kiyoshi Yamaki, Lead researcher – R1
  • Larry Vogel, Primary Contact (Shriners)
  • Brienne Davis Lowry, Project Coordinator
  • Anne Pach, Business Manager

Graduate students

  • Emilie Buscai, B.A.
  • Natasha A. Spassiani, MSc


The Disability Rehabilitation Research Project (DRRP) on Obesity Research on Prevalence, Adaptations and Knowledge Translation In Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities from Diverse Race/Ethnic Backgrounds at the University of Illinois at Chicago is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) (Grant #H133A100011) at the U.S. Department of Education.