People with disabilities have historically been defined by what they can’t do: A blind person can’t see, a paraplegic can’t walk, and a person with Down syndrome can’t perform complex thinking activities. For more than half a century, researchers in SU’s School of Education have worked to change society’s perceptions of people with disabilities by creating innovative teaching methods to cultivate individuals’ unique strengths. “Many of our faculty are nationally recognized pioneers and leaders in the field of disabilities because they have discovered ways to adapt their teachings so the child can flourish,” says Corinne Smith ’67, G’73, interim dean of the School of Education and a professor of teaching and leadership. “Our faculty work under the philosophy that individuals with disabilities have far more potential than previously thought.”

Professors in the school have led progressive—and sometimes controversial—campaigns to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. Those efforts include urging policy makers to close state institutions for the mentally retarded, training caregivers to help facilitate greater communication for people with severe disabilities, and conducting research to improve overall health. The School of Education has also prepared thousands of new teachers who enter school districts across the country ready to initiate inclusionary practices and promote the philosophy that students of all abilities can learn together and from each other.

That goal of helping every student prosper in a traditional classroom setting—a concept known as inclusion—drives many professors’ research. And their accomplishments in this area haven’t gone unrecognized. SU’s special education program annually ranks in or near the top 10 by U.S. News & World Report, and the School of Education appears near the top 25 schools in the magazine’s ranking based on reputation by deans and superintendents.

Center on Human Policy staff members and graduate assistants discuss disability issues at a meeting. At left, doctoral student Michael Schwartz, who is deaf, believes society benefits in many ways from the inclusion of people with disabilities.

The school has also developed new academic majors and programs for future teachers. For example, it was the first of 1,200 teacher preparatory schools in the nation to create an inclusionary education major that certifies students in both elementary and special education. “Ten percent of the U.S. school population is identified as disabled,” Smith says. “Our future teachers need to learn how to adapt their instruction to these children’s learning challenges.”

The school’s disabilities studies program was one of only two in the country when it began five years ago. Today, universities nationwide consult SU faculty for assistance in launching similar programs. The new academic field is emerging much like African American studies and women’s studies did a few decades ago. Students in the program examine disabilities in social, political, economic, and cultural contexts. “SU has an extraordinary collection of professors, staff members, and students who think progressively about disability,” says Michael Schwartz, a doctoral student in disabilities studies, who is deaf. “It has a powerful and organized constituency that will work to effectuate changes in how we think about disability.”

Syracuse University has responded to the growing interest in the field by sponsoring conferences and participating in informational projects to raise disability awareness. The School of Education, for instance, recently received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create curricula for middle and high schools that incorporate the historic accomplishments of Americans with disabilities. “A lot of what we do today at the University reflects our history and traditions,” says Steve Taylor G’77, professor of cultural foundations. “In terms of research and the School of Education’s academic program, Syracuse has been at the forefront for decades, not only promoting inclusion as a human value, but also developing strategies on how to make inclusion happen.”