Syracuse University Magazine

Inclusive Impact

College of Visual and Performing Arts student Nathaniel Stein ’11 (left) and Sujeet Desai perform at the premiere of People Like Me at Syracuse Stage.

Inclusive Impact

The Burton Blatt Institute reaches from campus to around the globe in its efforts to advance the civic, economic, and social participation of people with disabilities

By Anthony Adornato

Composer and musician Nathaniel Stein ’11, a College of Visual and Performing Arts student, has had his share of thrilling performances since embarking on a music career as a child. But none has been quite as moving or gratifying as Stein’s musical collaboration last year with Sujeet Desai, a musician with Down syndrome. Working in perfect harmony, Stein and Desai hit a high note producing and performing music for the documentary People Like Me, which premiered at the 2010 Orange Central celebration. “There were no barriers to Sujeet’s musical abilities,” says Stein, who partnered with him for seven months to create the film’s soundtrack. “It was like playing with any other musician. His ability was most striking and changed the way I think about people with disabilities.”

People Like Me, created by three Newhouse School professors, chronicles the history of the Young Actors Workshop at SU for young people with Down syndrome, autism, or physical disability. The Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University provided financial support for the project, one of BBI’s many initiatives aimed at infusing awareness about disabilities across disciplines. “BBI is working to make sure inclusion is a way of thinking and a component of the dialogue, education, and change across campus,” says University Professor Peter Blanck, BBI chairman. “BBI is shedding light on the issues facing people with disabilities and helping students, among others, see connections to their own lives.” 

Stein’s experience—and the lasting impression it made—is a case in point. Elvis Avdic ’11 and other students also recognize those “connections.” When Avdic signed up for Inclusive Entrepreneurship Consulting, a course developed by BBI that has enrolled 140 students in the past two years, he never imagined it would provide an indelible moment of his college career. As part of the course, Avdic served as a consultant for a semester, using his entrepreneurial know-how to help a Central New York resident with a disability launch his own business. “You get caught up in your own life, not realizing the challenges people with disabilities face,” says Avdic, a marketing management major. “As I enter the business world after graduation, I will definitely think more consciously about disability issues—hiring people with disabilities, for example. This wouldn’t be a priority, if I hadn’t taken the class.”

Officially launched in 2005 at SU, BBI builds on the legacy of Burton Blatt, former dean of the School of Education and a pioneering disability rights scholar, to challenge thinking and attitudes to better the lives of people with disabilities. “In only five years, BBI has become perhaps the premier disability institute globally focusing on advancing the civic, economic, and social participation of people with disabilities,” says Blanck, who joined the SU community in 2005 at the invitation of Chancellor Nancy Cantor to oversee BBI. “Along with Chancellor Cantor’s commitment to advancing the participation of people with disabilities, BBI was founded from the generosity of the Hammerman family and their vision to continue the legacy of their beloved family member, Dr. Burton Blatt.”

The first multidisciplinary institute of its kind located in and affiliated with a major university, BBI has experienced tremendous growth, both in its staff—which includes alumni from Newhouse, Maxwell, Education, Information Studies, and Law—and in the scope and impact of its work. The institute now has a team of more than 60 staff members and offices in Syracuse, New York City, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Tel Aviv, as well as activities in Los Angeles. BBI has also hosted several international postdoctoral fellows, three of whom have gone on to faculty positions in Israel at the University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

A remarkable variety of projects has already been completed under BBI’s auspices. On campus, BBI collaborates with students and faculty and continues to expand its reach across myriad disciplines, including communications, architecture, engineering, and science and technology, putting ideas and research into action. For instance, through the Inclusive Entrepreneurship curriculum, a joint effort with the Whitman School of Management, people with disabilities have launched dozens of new businesses (see "Achieving Entrepreneurial Dreams," below). At the same time, the course’s innovative service-learning component provides invaluable lessons for students, such as Avdic. In 2010, BBI received a Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement and Scholarship in recognition of its development of the curriculum and commitment to engagement with the community. “We seize on the notion of Scholarship in Action very seriously,” Blanck says. “We take knowledge out of the classroom and apply it to build understanding and create positive change.”

This summer, school librarians will learn firsthand about this “positive change” and what it means for their communities. In partnership with the Center for Digital Literacy at the School of Information Studies (iSchool), BBI is launching a program that will enable pre-K-12 librarians across New York State to better serve students with disabilities. Through Project ENABLE, teams of school librarians, and special and general educators will attend intensive workshops, co-taught by BBI’s William Myhill, on awareness, inclusive program development, and accessible technology selection. The workshops will help librarians meet the library and information needs of students with disabilities, developing inclusive lesson plans and learning materials for their respective libraries. “BBI brings a unique perspective to this important issue and project,” says iSchool professor Ruth Small ’64, G’77, G’85, who manages Project ENABLE. “I can tell you it is a pleasure to work with the institute.” 

The impact of BBI’s work extends beyond campus and the region. Across the country and around the world, BBI has gained a reputation as a problem solver and advocate for the full community participation of people with disabilities. Last year, through a partnership with the National Disability Institute’s Real Economic Impact Tour, BBI assisted more than 360,000 low-income citizens with disabilities nationwide in receiving more than $350 million owed them in tax refunds. This is just one step toward advancing their economic self sufficiency, according to BBI executive director Michael Morris. In addition, with the emergence of new technologies, BBI is spearheading educational and legal advocacy efforts to change the practices of major companies to ensure their web sites and such devices as e-book readers are fully accessible. The visibility BBI brought to accessibility issues with e-readers gained significant media attention, influencing many universities, including SU, to purchase accessible Kindles that are useable by people who are blind.  

BBI’s impact extends into corporate culture and the employment of people with disabilities as well. The institute has conducted research on the business practices of such Fortune 500 corporations as Procter & Gamble (P&G), Sears, Manpower, Microsoft, and Ernst & Young to understand strategies for an inclusive workforce. According to Blanck, the results help companies develop and assess policies, hiring practices, and training programs that benefit all people. “Ensuring that we have a culture at P&G where everyone has the opportunity to perform at their peak is critical,” says Ann Andreosatos, P&G North America human resources leader for people with disabilities initiatives. “Our ongoing collaboration with BBI has been pivotal to validating and initiating our People with Disabilities strategies.”

In New York State, BBI has taken a leadership position to dramatically improve employment rates and acceptance of people with disabilities in the workforce. With a goal of closing the employment gap faced by more than a million state residents with disabilities, BBI was selected as a partner in the $16 million New York Makes Work Pay program, funded through a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant to the New York State Office of Mental Health. BBI staff, working with key partners, developed a five-year plan to create pathways and remove obstacles to employment for New Yorkers with disabilities, allowing them to enter the economic mainstream. “The first question we ask ourselves is, ‘How will our work benefit individuals with disabilities and their families?’” says Blanck, as he reflects on BBI’s accomplishments and looks to build on its momentum going forward. “Whether in the invention of new technology, advancement of universal design standards, or the reinventing of government and the private sector, BBI epitomizes Scholarship in Action.” 

As BBI builds on Syracuse University’s longstanding achievements in the struggle for an inclusive society for all, Blanck credits the enthusiasm and support of the SU community—including University trustees Joshua H. Heintz L’69 and Lawrence Bashe ’66 G’68, who serve on BBI’s Board of Advisors—for the institute’s progress. “As Burton Blatt once said, ‘We now understand that each person has value. And, our world is a better place—more diverse, more interesting—when all people are included,’” Blanck says.


BBI Chairman Peter Blanck (center) and College of Law visiting professor William Snyder (right) listen as BBI senior advisor Brian McLane ’69 asks a question during a BBI seminar.

Watch the video of the Burton Blatt Institute

Achieving Entrepreneurial Dreams

From a dog grooming and day care service to a car repair garage, entrepreneurs with disabilities are making their mark in the Central New York business community, thanks to Start-Up NY, an innovative, first-of-its-kind program developed by the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI). “Starting my own eatery would not have been possible if it were not for the program,” says restaurateur Della Brown, who recently opened Tacolicious in Syracuse. Armed with knowledge and skills acquired through Start-Up NY and a range of resources provided by the University’s Inclusive Entrepreneurship initiative, Brown transformed her business ideas into reality. “It has not only given me invaluable skills, but also the opportunity to improve the quality of my life,” she says.  

Brown isn’t alone in achieving a dream. Since 2007, Start-Up NY—a partnership of BBI, the Whitman School of Management, and Onondaga County—has assisted 204 individuals with diverse disabilities in the creation of 48 new businesses. “Start-Up NY has become a model strategy for assisting people, including veterans, with diverse disabilities to become entrepreneurs,” says James Schmeling, BBI chief operating officer.

 BBI managed the design and implementation of Start-Up NY on behalf of Onondaga County, which received a three-year, $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy to create the program. “The work accomplished by the Burton Blatt Institute reinforces our belief that, with the correct supports, all citizens can find their rightful place in our county’s economic fabric,” says County Executive Joanne M. Mahoney ’87, L’90. 

BBI is now working with community partners to launch programs in other locations. “SU and its partners are replicating the Start-Up NY/Inclusive Entrepreneurship model in Manhattan, and it is being used as a model for similar initiatives throughout New York State and internationally,” says Gary Shaheen G’86, BBI senior vice president.  —Anthony Adornato


Through the Start-Up NY program, Barbara Janice established Max’s Barkery, offering all-natural, homemade dog treats.

Emergency Preparation in Israel


At a BBI seminar, Shirley Avrami, head of the Research and Information Center of the Israeli parliament, discusses disability-related research conducted by the parliament. 

In Israel, there are daily concerns about safety and contingency planning for rapid response to emergencies. But for years, the emergency planning had a missing link: no evacuation protocols for people with disabilities. In what turned out to be a lifesaving endeavor, the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI), in conjunction with the Israel Ministry of Social Affairs and Services, led efforts for emergency preparedness for Israelis with disabilities. “The project materials were used during a conflict to evacuate individuals with intellectual disabilities from a disability service provider hours before it was struck by a rocket,” says University Professor Peter Blanck, BBI chairman. “The evacuation saved lives.” 

To assist in the protection and safety of Israelis with disabilities, BBI applied lessons from its involvement in U.S. emergency planning and response after Hurricane Katrina. A team of BBI and Israeli researchers developed a system of alerts and resource mapping. The partnership was facilitated by Professor Arie Rimmerman, the Richard Crossman Chair for Social Welfare & Planning at the School of Social Work, Social Welfare, and Health Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel. “As a major step in building global relationships, in 2006 BBI and the Israel Ministry of Social Affairs and Services signed an historic agreement to collaborate to expand the scope and reach of disability rights,” Rimmerman says.

Along with the emergency preparedness guidelines, the partnership paved the way for expanded policy and services for people with disabilities in Israel. To conduct ongoing activities, an Israeli nonprofit organization, The Center of Innovation and Advancement of Quality of Life of People with Disabilities, was established, composed of leaders from BBI and others from SU, as well as Israelis. “BBI is collaborating globally to share and develop ideas for improving the quality of life for people with disabilities,” says Michael Morris, BBI executive director. —Anthony Adornato

Universalizing Universal Design

Just as proponents of “green” building concepts have seen their construction standards become commonplace, the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) and key partners are leading an unprecedented effort to build support for the voluntary adoption of universal design (UD). The UD approach advocates that all built environments and products be useable by all people. 

In 2008, BBI chairman Peter Blanck, University Trustee Joshua H. Heintz L’69, and his law partner, William J. Gilberti Jr., founded the Global Universal Design Commission (GUDC) to create UD standards, consensus-based, innovative performance guidelines that go beyond minimal compliance with law and provide ease of use to all. The GUDC standards are modeled on the green standards for the built environment, designating a level of accreditation for a project based on its usability, safety, health, and inclusiveness. 

GUDC brings together some of the most knowledgeable and influential leaders in UD, including four current and former presidential appointees, architects, and faculty from the University of Buffalo’s Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access. Commission members—including honorary chairman Luis Benigno Gallegos Chiriboga, Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States—are leading efforts to accelerate the adoption of the standards worldwide. “At the ambassador’s initiation, Professor Blanck and I met with Ecuador’s vice president, Lenín Moreno Garcés, and Ecuador became an early GUDC adopter,” Heintz says.

BBI and GUDC are collaborating with many university, corporate, and government leaders to promote adoption of the standards. For instance, Procter & Gamble is partnering with GUDC to focus on implementing the standards in its built environment and workforce policies. The SU College of Law’s new building committee is considering using the GUDC standards. Destiny USA has adopted the standards for its tenants, and the Seneca Nation, located in Western New York, has agreed to adopt the standards for new construction, according to Blanck. Last fall, at a global conference on technology and innovation for people with disabilities in Sao Paolo, Brazil, Heintz gave the keynote address on “Universalizing Universal Design.” Brazil is considering adoption of the standards to guide development for its 2014 World Cup facilities and its 2016 Olympics and Paralympics. “Brazil’s interest is a very exciting development,” Blanck says, “and we hope it will bring international attention to the importance of GUDC standards.”  —Anthony Adornato