Syracuse University Magazine


Katherine McDonald

Full Participation

As a youngster growing up in Syracuse, Katherine McDonald visited refugees’ homes, volunteered at church, and was involved in community issues with her family—experiences that shaped her awareness of social justice. It was, however, her time spent among friends at a Syracuse L’Arche community that defined McDonald’s professional interest in community psychology and changed her life. The Syracuse site is part of the larger L’Arche international federation of communities in which people with and without disabilities share a home and everyday life. So moved by the people she met there, she spent another two years at a L’Arche community in Switzerland following her graduation from Cornell University with a B.S. degree in human development and family studies in 1998. “Those experiences—seeing marginalization up close and how positive relationships transform people’s place in the world—sparked my passions,” says McDonald, a public health professor in the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics and a Faculty Fellow at the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) since August 2011.

McDonald’s interests have fueled a research career geared toward inclusion, eliminating disparities, and empowering people with disabilities to be full participants in educational, employment, and social opportunities. “I wanted to do work that was about how we change people’s relationship with their environment, how we change attitudes, and how we change policies to be more inclusive,” says McDonald, now active with L’Arche International. “I got really lucky because I just kind of found my field, found my place.”

After returning from Switzerland, McDonald pursued master’s and Ph.D. degrees in community and prevention research psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The specialized field looks at human beings in the context of their political, religious, school, and community environments. She became interested in inclusive research practices as part of the university’s institutional review board, a federally regulated board that monitors research involving human participants. “I started to learn about how the same issues in terms of community participation outside these walls—exclusion and overprotecting rather than allowing the dignity of risk—happened in terms of research participation,” she says. “We need to have processes that offer safeguards in the least restrictive manner.”

In pursuit of those answers, McDonald did her dissertation on—and continues to study—the research participation of people with developmental disabilities. Her goal is to create materials that would inform researchers about people with disabilities, and materials and strategies that would allow them to participate in studies.

In another area of investigation, McDonald conducts participatory action research with community-based organizations and community members on health, education, and employment disparities among people with disabilities. She has a longstanding collaboration with the Academic Autistic Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education in which project leadership is shared between an academic and an autistic adult. “The work is more socially relevant because it’s inclusive of the community perspective,” McDonald says. In June, she was honored for her work by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities with its 2012 Early Career Award, after a nomination by a close colleague and mentor, the late Western Oregon University professor Hank Bersani Jr. G’73, G’82, a leading expert in the field. 

McDonald’s research also put her in contact with Peter Blanck, BBI chairman and University Professor, and led to her position that helps connect the work of BBI with the University. In her Disability and Health course, students look at the legal rights and service provisions for people with disabilities, along with disparities in health care and promotion—and their perspectives about their environments shift. “While it won’t necessarily be their specialty, as public health professionals, it’s a population they will serve, interact with, and care about,” McDonald says.  —Kathleen Haley