Syracuse University Magazine

Higher Expectations

Professor Wendy Harbour (left), executive director of the Taishoff Center, discusses an issue with students.

Higher Expectations

The Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education Works to Involve All Students with Disabilities in the College Experience

Wendy Harbour believes people with so-called “intellectual disabilities” can do much more than expected, if given the opportunity. And as executive director of the Lawrence B. Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education, she is putting that belief into practice. “Our work at the Taishoff Center is exciting because most students with Down syndrome, Rett syndrome, autism, or some other type of disability that may affect abstract reasoning, just haven’t had the right set of services or supports to show us what they know,” says Harbour, the Lawrence B. Taishoff Assistant Professor for Inclusive Higher Education. “Access to higher education is like getting a second chance.” 

Inspired by their daughter, Jackie, who has Down syndrome, Laurie Bean Taishoff ’84 and Robert P. Taishoff ’86 made a $1 million commitment in 2009 to establish the center in the School of Education. Named in honor of Jackie’s grandfather, Lawrence Taishoff, who formed a special bond with her from the day she was born, the center follows two teaching and research tracks: one relates to students with intellectual disabilities who in the past were not even considered for higher education; the other is geared toward helping students deal with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. “We are very proud of Syracuse University and the innovative leadership role it has taken to support opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities,” says Robert Taishoff, a member of SU’s Board of Trustees.

Most parents of students with intellectual disabilities aren’t aware that college is an option. Harbour is collaborating with the coordinators of two SU programs that allow students with intellectual disabilities to audit courses and participate in campus activities: OnCampus, offered through the Syracuse City School District, is for students ages 18 to 21 who are still in high school; Access, under the auspices of the Onondaga Community Living agency, is for students 21 years and older who register for courses through University College. “It’s kind of cool because participants meet with their advisors, receive accommodations from the Office of Disability Services, and choose their courses, just like a typical college student,” Harbour says. “I’d like to create a formal certificate program for students who audit classes to show they’ve had some college experience, even though they don’t have a college degree.”

Another important focus of Harbour’s work at the Taishoff Center is to promote the adoption of universal design in learning strategies among instructors and administrators to provide for the maximum diversity of students. In universal design, courses are structured so that students have options to demonstrate what they’ve learned in different ways. “If you’re not particularly good at taking tests, but it has nothing to do with a disability, it would be great to be in a class where you could choose to do a presentation or to write an essay instead,” says Harbour, who is deaf. “With universal design in learning, flexibility is built into the planning of the curriculum, so no one falls behind in their coursework.”  

Harbour says the field of disability rights has lost many prominent leaders in the last few years, and it helps her to know there is a new generation coming up. To ensure a smooth transition from one generation to the next, she is busy organizing a national leadership conference for undergraduates with disabilities to be held at SU in August. Harbour sees the conference, Disabled & Proud: A Call to Lead, as a way to instill activism in the next group of leaders—on campus and beyond—who will take the disability rights movement to the next level. “If they’ve figured out a way to get to Syracuse for the conference, they’re probably already leaders,” she says. “I want them to come here, feel a sense of community, and add some new tools to their toolbox as change agents. And then I want them to go back to their campuses and shake things up a bit.” 

Historically, college is a time when many students—with or without disabilities—come to realize what needs to be done to create a more inclusive world. Undergraduates in Harbour’s disability studies classes grumble that now they can’t help but see disability everywhere they go. “I just laugh because making students more sensitive to disability is exactly what we’re trying to do,” she says. “I don’t care if they go into anything related to disability, but college is the gatekeeper of the professions, so when these students become teachers or corporate executives, they will be more comfortable with disability. I know our work at the Taishoff Center is going to have a nice ripple effect, and that really gets me excited.” —Christine Yackel