Researchers all across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health disparities on both local and global scales. These researchers evaluate health disparities from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, and work to find ways to address the discrepancies within medicine, child development, law, food access, education, and health communication. Each Researcher Spotlight features a health disparities researcher doing important work right here at Illinois.
Reginald Alston, PhD
Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Community Health
Reginald Alston, PhD, is professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health in the university's College of Applied Health Sciences. His work focuses on health disparities within racial groups, particularly African Americans, in rehabilitation outcomes within the state and federal systems.
What is your research in health disparities about?
I examine disparities in rehabilitation outcomes within the state/federal rehabilitation system, particularly as it relates to African Americans with chronic illnesses and disabilities. When I say rehabilitation outcomes, it means I explore psychosocial, vocational, familial, and societal factors that can preclude or facilitate optimal functioning and successful community reentry following hospitalization.
How are you conducting your research?
My lab, so to speak, is the community. It is the human service agencies and rehabilitation service providers that are actually embedded within communities across the nation. I do primary data collection (surveys, interviews, focus groups) from persons with disabilities as well as rehabilitation professionals who provide services to those individuals. I also do secondary data analysis, where I use very large data sets such as the Rehabilitation Services Administration’s Case Service Report or the National Health Interview Survey. Oftentimes, I’m looking at how two or more ethnic groups may differ across certain outcome factors, how to determine what those differences are, and what lead to those differences. Sometimes there aren’t any differences at all, which suggests that current policies and approaches to rehabilitation service provision are fine. Other times, the differences are quite stark and I recommend refinement of policies and service provision models.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
The major themes of the College of Applied Health Sciences (AHS) are health, aging, disability, and wellness. I’m surrounded by scholars who have these themes, either one or more, as part of their research focus. I have the good fortune of being able to collaborate with individuals who are in my college, sometimes just down the hall. In AHS, we have scholars who do research directly related to what I’m doing; those are people who I can reach out to and ask that they join me in a study and, many times, they ask me to join them in their studies or grant pursuits. It’s wonderful being in this very rich environment of scholars who share my focus in terms of disparities. I’m always in discussion with them on the topic of health disparities in the country, whether it’s along the lines of rehabilitation policy or whether it’s along the lines of more direct service delivery issues. Being at Illinois, within this particular college, makes my work easier and more fun, because it’s helpful to have colleagues who share my focus.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
My entry into rehabilitation sciences and disability studies was actually serendipitous. I completed my undergraduate degree at South Carolina State University, which is one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the country. I had a dual-major in psychology and special education, and one of my professors in special education knew about my general interest in disability studies and said, “Hey, there’s a new master’s program on campus in an area called rehabilitation and I think it’s a good blend between psychology and special education. Why don’t you go talk to the director of this program about graduate studies in that area?”
I was intrigued by what I heard from the Director, abandoned my plans to study counseling psychology in graduate school, and decided instead to enter the program in rehabilitation because it was actually a good blend between psychology and special education. From there, I just continued on with the PhD at Florida State University and eventually entered academia at the University of Kentucky and then here at the University of Illinois.
How will your research improve society or reach people?
All researchers hope that their work makes a difference. So the way I’ve ensured that my work finds its way into communities is that I’ve served on the boards of various community agencies, such as the Francis Nelson Health Center in Champaign, which is a federally-qualified health center for this area. They provide a lot of medical services to people who cannot afford healthcare because of lack of insurance or poor insurance coverage. Many of those persons are from underrepresented communities and have disabilities. By being on these leadership committees, I’m able to speak with the board about making changes in policy, service delivery, and prevention-related services.
I have also served on the board of the Illinois Assistive Technology Program, which is based in Springfield, Illinois, to help persons with disabilities gain access to technologies that will improve day-to-day function and quality of life. Nationally, I work with colleagues to influence improvements in federal legislation such as the Workforce Investment Act. Most importantly the ADA, which is one the most significant pieces of legislation to come out of Washington in the last 30 years, needs to be regularly updated and those updates need to include the latest evidence-based findings with the aim of improving the lives of persons with disabilities in this country. Finally, I advise doctoral students who publish with me and will eventually be professors at universities or administrators at health centers and agencies. As a result of my mentoring, they hopefully will be motivated to go out and continue doing disparities research.