Staff Spotlight: Cara Whalen Smith is creating a more inclusive community in Ohio and abroad

Submitted by CDang on July 10, 2019 - 10:33 am

If there has been one constant in Cara Whalen Smith’s life, it would be dance. She started ballet at age four, spent a summer dancing with the American Ballet Theatre in Detroit, almost pursued a professional dance career, and has been a dance instructor since she was 16.

Whalen Smith, a project manager and principal investigator at GRC, decided to combine her passion for dance with rehabilitation by pursuing a career as a physical therapist after graduating from high school.

“There weren’t any people with disabilities in my dance studio and it occurred to me that things which are so important to me are not accessible to everyone,” said Whalen Smith.

She started her own adaptive dance class, flipping conventional physical therapy by bringing her patients to the dance studio instead of a clinic for rehabilitation.

Doing treatment in the clinical environment doesn’t necessarily translate to the home or community. Where you live, work, and play is where rehab should happen, especially for child development.

One of Whalen Smith’s first adaptive dance students was a six-year-old girl who was determined to dance without any devices.

“She hated dance at first but when we went on stage she loved it,” said Whalen Smith. “She drew a picture of everyone in the class dancing and it was the most meaningful thing I’ve kept from my dance students.”

At the beginning of the year, her student could hardly walk. By the end of the year, her student was able to walk a marathon without a device.

Whalen Smith’s adaptive dance program also provided an important learning opportunity for the studio’s dance instructors and dancers on creating inclusive dance classes.

“At the start of the class, some of our dancers didn’t even know how to talk to someone with a disability,” she said. “It was really rewarding to show our dancers that disability doesn’t mean inability.”

Wanting to further community-based inclusive development, Whalen Smith obtained her master’s degree in public health from The Ohio State University. For her culminating project, she implemented a community-based rehabilitation training program to improve workforce capacity for treating children with developmental disabilities in rural Rwanda. Whalen Smith continues to volunteer in Rwanda, leading programs to improve access to care for people with disabilities at the Ubumwe Community Center in Gisenyi.

As a principal investigator at GRC, Whalen Smith is working towards transforming Ohio into a model disability inclusion state.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a quarter of adults in Ohio have some type of disability. Adults with disabilities are more likely to be obese, have high blood pressure, and smoke compared to the general population.

Whalen Smith hopes to close the gap in health care disparities among people with disabilities through the Ohio Disability and Health Program (ODHP). A partnership between The Ohio State University Nisonger Center, University of Cincinnati Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, Ohio Department of Health, GRC, and a statewide disability advisory committee, ODHP targets physical activity, nutrition intervention, tobacco cessation, and training and education. The project team is currently developing core competencies for quality care of patients with disabilities for health care providers. They hope to integrate these competencies into medical schools and other health professional accreditation and licensure.

“People may not realize they’re being discriminatory or hold implicit biases about disability,” said Whalen Smith. “There are a lot of areas where public health can intervene. First in the way we talk about disability and another way in how we think about disability.”

Q&A with Cara Whalen Smith

What are you currently reading or listening to?
I am currently reading "The Book of Joy." I listen to anything and everything. I love music probably because I’m a dancer. If I only had to listen to one genre the rest of my life it’d be from the 'Golden Age' of music.

If you could do another job for just one day, what would you do?
I would be a physical therapist for gorillas or an astronaut.

What is something on your bucket list?
Ever since Lord of the Rings I’ve wanted to go to New Zealand.

What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a public health career?
Find what your passion is and don’t be afraid to be a voice for that perspective. There’s a whole world of opportunity.