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Introduction – Issue #1

I am excited to welcome readers to our inaugural edition of The Journal of Teaching Disability Studies!  I am grateful to our authors and peer reviewers, our editorial board and in particular to our Managing Editor, Matthew Conlin and our copy editor, Dawn Martin, for their assistance with making our journal a reality.  I hope that JTDS will be a venue for those of us who teach about disability to publish their research and ideas to advance pedagogy in the field.

Academic programs and course offerings in Disability Studies have continued to grow in the United States over the last several decades.  Each program adds a welcome thread to the tapestry that makes up our academic field.  As Disability Studies becomes better known, the possibility of developing a certificate, minor, or degree becomes a bit easier.  I often receive inquiries about how our Disability Studies program was created and I know that my colleagues on other campuses also receive similar inquiries.  While I suspect that each existing program’s inception was somewhat idiosyncratic, I hope to feature information about the creation of other Disability Studies programs in subsequent issues of the Journal of Teaching Disability Studies, in the hope that it might help others interested in developing new programs.

In this first issue, I thought to begin by discussing the creation of our own Disability Studies program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies.  Several distinguished activists and educators were conducting research and teaching Disability Studies courses at CUNY before the inception of the School of Professional Studies and our Disability Studies program, and I want to acknowledge their efforts here.

In 1989, Eunice Kennedy Shriver challenged her nephew, John F. Kennedy, Jr. to consider how to support and enhance the field of intellectual disabilities.  Because Kennedy lived in New York City, he looked to local agencies serving children and adults with intellectual disabilities for ideas and expertise.

Leaders of service agencies stressed the need to support the frontline workforce and create career paths for direct support staff.  Kennedy realized that frontline workers have an enormous impact on those they serve, as their daily lives are closely intertwined. He saw that providing support and education to these workers could directly benefit service recipients, and he saw CUNY, a public institution that is the engine of career mobility for so many New Yorkers, as a strong partner.

Kennedy founded a nonprofit he called Reaching UP to develop these ideas, and collaborated with CUNY in a public-private partnership to conduct research and support the frontline workforce.

Dr. William Ebenstein, a professor at the College of Staten Island, became the director of the CUNY Direct Care Worker Initiative. Together, Reaching UP and CUNY began to support the development of course work and certificates in developmental disabilities on several of CUNY’s campuses.

Another initiative born of this partnership was The Kennedy Fellows Program.  The program provided tuition support and enrichment opportunities to workers who were enrolled in CUNY degree programs.  Each Fellow chose a mentor who was a CUNY faculty member or leader in a service agency.  Mentors filled a number of roles, including providing career and, frequently, personal advice to Kennedy Fellows.  Since the program’s creation, over 800 Kennedy Fellows received assistance to attend school and mentoring support.  Many became mentors to other Kennedy Fellows over time, as they achieved their own academic and career success.

Because of these initiatives, a close relationship formed between service agencies and CUNY.  John F. Kennedy, Jr. was personally involved in the program, visiting classes, attending colloquia for direct support workers, and becoming a national champion for the direct support workforce.

After the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1999, Reaching UP and CUNY established the John F. Kennedy Institute for Worker Education, with Bill Ebenstein as the founding Director. The Institute continues to conduct research and support workforce development initiatives in health and human services.

Dr. Ebenstein became interested in bringing Disability Studies to CUNY as a way to expose workers to a new and different philosophy of disability and provide another opportunity for career advancement.  When the School of Professional Studies began in 2003, he saw an opportunity to develop an Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies located at the new School.  A group of faculty from several CUNY campuses who were working in Disability Studies assisted with advice and curriculum development. Our School has a particular interest in supporting and educating the workforce in New York City, so there was substantial congruence with the mission of the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Institute for Worker Education.

With the flexible structure at CUNY SPS, the Advanced Certificate became the first freestanding Disability Studies program in the country – that is,  the program was not located in another academic department like social sciences, health sciences, education, or the humanities.  Instead, from the beginning Disability Studies was its own entity at SPS.

Originally, the concept was that students in other master’s programs would complete the Advanced Certificate and bring the philosophical grounding provide by a Disability Studies perspective back to those other fields – social work, rehabilitation counseling, neuroscience, special education, and nonprofit management.  Because of the relationship with nonprofit service agencies, however, a large number of the initial graduates of the Advanced Certificate program were staff of service agencies serving individuals with intellectual disabilities.  Many students received tuition support through funding obtained by Dr. Ebenstein.

After several years, a number of Advanced Certificate graduates had completed the four courses required for the Advanced Certificate but continued to take coursework, as they found the courses interesting and stimulating.  They advocated for the creation of the MA in Disability Studies, and with the support of full time CUNY faculty working in Disability Studies and Bill Ebenstein’s shepherding the degree through CUNY and New York State Education approvals, the MA launched in the spring of 2009.  The curriculum reflects the interdisciplinary nature of Disability Studies, while our students are largely nontraditional Disability Studies students.

I came to CUNY SPS in mid-2008 to direct the MA program, after over fifteen years of adjunct work at Medgar Evers College, the City College of New York and LaGuardia Community College, all CUNY schools.  I had been teaching in the Advanced Certificate at CUNY SPS program since 2005 as an adjunct, and heading the nonprofit advocacy and service organization I co-founded in 1983. Over the years, I had been a mentor to Kennedy Fellows and a supporter of CUNY’s disability initiatives.

In keeping with our School’s mission of supporting the frontline workforce, I developed the first BA in Disability Studies of its kind in the country, launching in 2012.  Almost all of SPS’s programs are online, so it made sense to develop the BA as an online program as students would need to complete general education courses online.  Our bachelor’s degree targets the workforce, in keeping with our School’s mission, introducing students to key concepts in Disability Studies before they take coursework relevant to their employment.  After taking foundational courses, students choose one of four concentrations, three of which are geared to students interested in learning more about supporting individuals with disabilities. One concentration is an interdisciplinary Disability Studies track.

In 2013, our School began to offer the MA and Advanced Certificate programs online as well, and as of the fall of 2019, all of our Disability Studies programs will be fully online.  Our MS in Disability Services in Higher Education launched in 2016, sharing the foundational course in the MA program to ground MS students in Disability Studies.  In all, we offer over 70 Disability Studies courses each year.

Over time, our student body has broadened.  We continue to attract students who work in service agencies but we also enroll disabled students as well as parents of children and adults with disabilities. In any given semester, about 30% of our students are registered with the disability service office.  The diversity of our student body allows for rich conversations in our classes.

In common with many educational institutions, we rely on full time CUNY faculty when possible, but most of our classes are taught by adjuncts. Our faculty includes full time CUNY educators interested in Disability Studies as well as expert practitioners in the field.  Because we are online, we are able to draw instructors from other parts of the country, and we seek instructors with disabilities or relevant personal experience who also possess academic credentials and expertise in teaching online.  While the number varies each semester, this fall 50% of our faculty have disclosed disabilities.

For readers who might wish to develop Disability Studies programs at their college or university, I believe that several factors were crucial in the creation and growth of our program. Our program would not exist without Bill Ebenstein’s vision, ability to navigate bureaucracy, and persistence over time.  His commitment both to the frontline workforce and to maintaining the integrity of Disability Studies as an interdisciplinary academic field at CUNY was key.  Dr. Ebenstein’s willingness to innovate and experiment, and his ability to enlist the support of a wide variety of stakeholders was vital to establishing our program at CUNY.

Also crucial was the support of our School’s Founding Dean, John Mogulescu, who was involved early on when Reaching UP and CUNY began working together in the late 1980’s. Dean Mogulescu understands the importance of the field and has a strong commitment to developing the workforce in New York City and beyond. He has been a champion of our program and our students over the last fifteen years.

My academic colleagues at CUNY SPS and staff at all levels of our School have likewise been supportive, offering assistance and making an extra effort to help us as we developed new programs and course offerings.  Our Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, George Otte, and the various departments who all need to work together to admit, enroll, and support our students have gone out of their way to deepen their own knowledge our program and the needs of our students and faculty.  Full time CUNY faculty on other campuses who were already working in Disability Studies within their own academic disciplines have been crucial instructors, advisors and supporters of the program over the last decade and a half.

Disability Studies is still an emerging academic field, and we need to be ready to explain yet again to stakeholders on campus that it is not about health, medicine, or the study of how to address a particular disability, but at its core is the study of disability as diversity and its intersection with society.  I know that as more Disability Studies programs are established, all of us will benefit, and I welcome additions to our group of Disability Studies programs.

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