Personal Story

Impact feature issue on Retirement & Aging for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

A Time to Heal

Author

Kayte Barton is a longtime Special Olympics and community volunteer with autism and intellectual disability. She lives in Woodbury, Minnesota

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A caucasian woman with short, brown hair wearing glasses and a gray collared graphic shirt smiles as she holds a lit Special Olympics torch.

Kayte Barton, now retired from paid work, competed extensively in Special Olympics events. Photo courtesy of John Altman.

Now that I’m in my late 40s, I have discovered many things that I am not able to do like I did when I was younger. I never thought much about aging healthy when I was younger, but now I do.

My body isn’t in the same shape that it was! I have had some issues with joints, which made me realize that I need to start thinking about healthy aging now more than ever! 

I took my body’s cue to retire from sports competition in Special Olympics in 2018. I competed in every sport! My favorite sports were the contact sports, such as hockey. Now that I am no longer competing, I find time to go for walks in my community two to three days a week, and I will return to the YMCA when COVID-19 is over.

I have learned that aging isn’t a bad thing. I use this time to work on things that are important to me, and helping to improve the lives of people with intellectual disabilities all across the world. Through this work I have discovered I am truly passionate about advocating for people with disabilities!

I was employed in the community, but as I got older, it became much more difficult and I needed to retire. Working created anxiety for me, as I had to always work hard to make my autism look like it was non-existent in order to get employment, and to be the employee that the company or employer expected me to be. This led to some very unhealthy things, such as using food to feed feelings and hide emotions, and pretty bad anxiety.

A caucasian woman with short, brown hair wearing a bright red hockey jersey stands with her hands resting on a hockey stick.

Hockey was one of Barton’s favorite sports during her playing day

I wasn’t always an advocate for health, but a few years ago I had a pre-diabetes scare, which led me to make changes in my own life. Special Olympics also helped light my passion for health.I became a health messenger for Special Olympics Minnesota and Special Olympics North America and International.

In this role, I am responsible for helping teach athletes how to lead better lives. I realized that if I was unhealthy myself that I couldn’t be a very good role model. As a health messenger, I also have the task of educating people about the importance of inclusive health care, which includes inclusive, healthy aging.

Two areas that I am passionate about are mental health and obesity among people with intellectual disability. So, I decided to do something about both. Using personal experiences, I worked to develop programs, and write legislation.

I have had some mental health issues, and I found that there weren’t any programs that were suited for me, or that would take me because they didn’t want to work with an autistic person. I learned that there wasn’t anything aimed at people with intellectual disability. I turned to Special Olympics. I first approached the Minnesota team, and worked with St. Catherine University psychology professors and students to see what could be done. They agreed to help me create a health discipline resource for their Healthy Athletes programs. After a few years of developing it, we approached Special Olympics International, and I helped them create Strong Minds, an interactive learning activity for developing adaptive coping skills that is serving athletes worldwide.

After years of struggling with my weight and not having many options and nowhere to turn, I decided to see what I could do. I decided to write legislation, I figured that this was the best way to solve this problem, because I probably wasn’t alone!

First, I learned to write legislation. Then I wrote legislation to help create obesity care and programs for people with intellectual disability. I presented it to my representatives, who agreed to sponsor it. It went through both the Minnesota House and Senate this spring, and was sent to on to committees for discussion in the fall of 2021.

I wrote this after realizing that we needed programs and access to the obesity care that we aren’t receiving, and there is not enough data or research about this problem.

By creating these programs, I am hoping to help create awareness for the need for more inclusive health care for people with intellectual disability. I also want to make people understand the other health issues that obesity creates, such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as the financial cost they impose on individuals and governments.   

People who are aging with intellectual disability are often overlooked. We are not a population that is thought of when it comes to aging.

Healthy aging, to me, means being able to do the things that I want to do, such as art. I love to draw, and paint. I also volunteer within my community. Volunteering allows me to create relationships and allows the community to see a person with an intellectual disability as a person who is fully capable of being a functioning community member. We are just like any other person in the community; we just have different needs and skills to offer!

We need to look for ways to improve the way people with disabilities access healthy aging resources. We may even need to create more resources designed to help them choose how they live out their golden years.  

Encourage the people you love to age healthy. This includes engaging their minds, using their bodies, and embracing both as they age. Some people with disabilities may not be aware of what is happening to their bodies, but you can help them age gracefully, and live out the remainder of their lives how they like.

If they do understand, write down their wishes now, even before they reach old age, so you can help them create the retirement plan of their dreams.

Small Change: Stories from the Neighborhood

In this podcast , Kayte Barton shares how she helped create a mindfulness program for Special Olympics athletes, one of her retirement passions.

Minnesota Now with MPR’s Cathy Wurzer

Kayte Barton, a mental health advocate for people with disabilities in Woodbury, Minn., is looking toward her future and planning for retirement. Twila Dang, co-host of the podcast Small Change: Money Stories from the Neighborhood, brought more on Barton’s story to Minnesota Now host Cathy Wurzer.