By Joan Leotta
The vehicle for both transformations is the Disabilities Studies Program, offered by CUNY’S School of Professional Studies (SPS). In 2013 CUNY SPS will offer the nation’s first online master’s degree program in disability studies, along with existing Online Bachelor’s Degree and a Graduate Certificate programs in the same discipline. The program is designed to offer and opportunity to explore the relationship between society and disability to help students gain a broader view of the issues they encounter on a daily basis.
The program combines multidisciplinary perspectives on disability with coursework designed to spark innovation. Graduates of the program have the potential to develop new policies and new approaches to disability barriers. Program participants develop tools to help transform obstacles into stepping stones, taking people with disabilities to higher levels of achievement.
How the Program Began
The online master’s degree program has its roots in the activism of a presidential family. Mariette Bates, Academic Director of Disabilities Studies, explains: “Twenty-four years ago … John F. Kennedy, Jr. was challenged to do something positive in the disability field here in the city. In 1989, after researching needs in the field, he decided to focus on the needs of the frontline workforce. He worked with Bill Ebenstein, now CUNY’s University Dean for Health and Human Services, to develop courses on CUNY campuses for those target workers serving individuals with disabilities.
“The idea was to strengthen the primary relationships workers have with those they serve,” Bates continues, “and to broaden the background knowledge of those already in the field, increasing their chance to rise into management. At the time we began there were no particular programs targeted to workers serving people with disabilities, using a person-centered perspective.”
Kennedy also created a fellowship for CUNY students who work in the field. Kennedy Fellows receive a scholarship and mentoring opportunities. In the past two decades the program has selected over 800 students to become Kennedy Fellows.Bates taught a course on Introduction to Developmental Disabilities in the early days of the program and served as a mentor to Kennedy Fellows.
In 2003, CUNY created the School of Professional Studies to further the education of working adults in New York City. The Disability Studies Program began at the newly created school with a graduate certificate in 2004. The Master’s Degree began as a face-to-face program in 2009.
Says Bates, “Our programs are aimed not only at getting people in the trenches to think bigger thoughts about disability and society, but also to provide a way for those in the field to do more, kick-starting their creativity. Our classes provide forums in which people can put together their practical knowledge and the newly-minted theoretical immersion to find new practical solutions to removing barriers to people with disabilities.”
Who Take the Classes
In 2012, CUNY SPS created the Online Bachelor’s Degree program for people who need to finish college. The Master’s Degree is coming online in the fall of 2013. Online courses provide flexibility to students who self-identify as having a disability and therefore might be better able to complete the courses in the comfort of their own homes and with their own adaptive computer equipment. In addition, workers who cannot attend school face-to-face because of family responsibilities have another option to finish their degree.
Another benefit to presenting the classes online is the opportunity to broaden the student base geographically. Although most of the students still come from the metro New York area, as the program becomes better known, its reach can grow. Bates adds, “Online students have the advantage of paying in-state tuition no matter where they live.”
Katie DeFoe, Assistant Director of the program, reports, “Of course the number of students and the ratio of those with disabilities changes each semester, but in general, there are about 90-100 students in the masters program and about 15-20 now in the Graduate Certificate program. The Bachelor’s Degree Program has about thirty enrolled and we get more and more applications each day.”
Because the program had such strong ties to service agencies, about 75% of the students in the MASTER’S DEGREE program already work in the field in some capacity. About 15% of the disability studies students self-identify as having disability.
Bates points out that the specialty of disability expertise is a relatively new one and not everyone understands what can be gained by taking it. She says, “With these resources and qualifications under their belt,” she explains, “now people with disabilities can become advocates not only for themselves, but also can have an opportunity to be in positions that will affect disability policy.”
The Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree and Graduate Certificate programs are open to all who meet certain educational requirements, described below. The Kennedy Fellows program is administered by the Office of the Dean of Health and Human Services and has specific requirements for applicants. Limited scholarship aid is available at all levels for qualifying students.
Teaching and Placement
By offering classes online, the programs (can) attract an eclectic mix of instructors with various real-world viewpoints. Faculty members include both various full-time CUNY professors and expert practitioners from the field. DeFoe says, “About 58% of our current faculty either have disabilities or are parents of or have siblings with disabilities.”
People from other CUNY disciplines such as the School of Social Work or the rehabilitation fields often come to the program to learn more about disability in the four course advanced certificate program with a goal of transforming perspectives in their fields.
The program should leave a lasting legacy to improve the working lives of people with disabilities. “One of the things I value about these programs,” says Bates, “is that they have the power to transfer that knowledge and energy to future generations.
“These programs offer people with disabilities and those who support them an opportunity to dialogue face to face and online,” she continues. “Each class provides a safe place to explore issues related to disability and have some profound dialogue and that will transform the field—and remove the stigmas that lead to poverty. These things are really important.”
CUNY SPS Disability Studies at a Glance
Disability Studies is an emerging academic field that explores disability from multiple perspectives, including the social sciences, humanities, science, and the law. SPS offers groundbreaking, fully accredited programs within Disability Studies including:
Online B.A. in Disability Studies (120 credits)
- The first undergraduate degree program of its kind in the country
- Earn the necessary skills to improve the lives of people with disabilities
- Elect one of the four concentrations for in-depth study: Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities; Autism Spectrum Disorder; Mental/Behavioral Health; Interdisciplinary Disability Studies
M.A. in Disability Studies (30 credits) Online courses available
- The first stand-alone program of its kind in the country
- Use a “person-centered” approach to the study of disability to uncover a new understanding of society
- Gain intellectual and methodological tools to assume greater responsibility and leadership roles in the future as service providers, advocates, researchers, or policy makers
Graduate Certificate in Disability Studies (12 credits) Online courses available
- Examine disability through psychology, history, literature, law, medicine, politics, and urban planning
- Acquire a deeper understanding of disability studies, including its philosophy, importance in disability research, influence on public policy and impact on service delivery
- Further or begin a career working with and for people with a wide range of disabilities in community-based and governmental agencies as they evolve in the 21st Century
Edited by Mary-Louise Piner.