The program helps future practitioners understand how best to support someone with a disability to be fully participatory and included. Disability services is not just limited to the academic and working environments, but is important to the living and playing environments of people with disabilities, too."
–Beth Fondell, Certificate Coordinator
Thursday, December 17, 2015

Institute on Community Integration

Combining Theory and Practice to Promote Community Integration: The Graduate Certificate in Disability Policy and Services

Combining Theory and Practice to Promote Community Integration

The Graduate Certificate in Disability Policy and Services


n the U.S., close to five million individuals have intellectual and developmental disabilities and over 20 million people experience limitations affecting one or more major life areas. In the last twenty-five years, legislation and policies aimed at helping people with disabilities become fully integrated into their communities have changed drastically. For graduate or professional students looking to enter a public service profession, understanding these changes is critical to serving this demographic. However, most graduate programs don’t include or require courses about serving the needs of those with disabilities.

At the University of Minnesota, the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) and Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development (OLPD) offer a targeted education curriculum, called the Certificate on Disability Policy and Services, for those who wish to gain an understanding of how to better support persons with disabilities and their families.

The certificate program focuses on both educational and professional outcomes. “For anybody whose future profession is going to touch the lives of children or adults with disabilities, this program could be very beneficial,” says program coordinator Beth Fondell. “It’s substantive, and covers the lifespan of individuals with disabilities, from early childhood through adult covering topics such as early childhood services, inclusive education, transition from school to adult life, postsecondary education, employment, and community living options. We review all of the important legislation that impacts lives of those with disabilities and those who serve them.”

Graduate students in a diverse array of fields (including education, rehabilitation, social work, healthcare, public policy, and international studies) enroll in the certificate program to better understand past and present disability services so that they can effectively engage in supporting those living with developmental disabilities, whether at a policy level or in direct care, in their professional career.

"While I had worked for many years with children, adolescents, and families impacted by developmental disabilities," says certificate program alum Elizabeth Vandre, "it wasn't until I began the interdisciplinary course that I was able to connect the impact of history and policy to both the barriers and opportunities my clients were faced with."

As a doctoral student in Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, Hannah Julien agrees that the certificate program has enhanced her professional expertise and teaching practices. “I aspire to be an outstanding educator of future clinicians,” Julien says. “The academic and applied experiences that I completed for the certificate served two primary goals: to increase my understanding of the legislation and policies affecting persons with disabilities, and to gain a more robust context for how I think about the children and families I serve as a Speech-Language Pathologist and the children and families that my future students will serve.”

An interdisciplinary–yet individualized–look at community integration for people with disabilities

While students in the ICI certificate program learn about significant legislation such as the 1990 American with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else, the program goes beyond policies and procedures. It aims to help students understand what community integration actually looks like for a person living with a physical or developmental disability. Participants in the program examine the broad spectrum of available services and take time to explore community living programs that support persons with disabilities in pursuing hobbies, social involvement, and advocacy positions.

Beyond the core courses, certificate candidates also conduct an individualized learning experience where they can put theory into practice through volunteering at a school, social service organization, clinic, or any institution that engages in direct support of people with disabilities.

“The program helps future professionals understand how best to support someone with a disability to fully participate in their communities” says Fondell. “Disability services is not just limited to the academic and working environments, but is important to the living and playing environments of people with disabilities, too.”

Students who enroll in the ICI certificate program get a bird’s eye view of disability policies and practices that isn’t offered through any single department at the U. “It’s a place where people from different disciplines come together to engage in dialogue about these issues,” Fondell says. “It’s designed for high interactions across disciplines, from school administration, nursing, special education, occupational therapy, kinesiology, and any allied health professions as well as social work, psychology, and any public policy programs.”

Julien says that the interdisciplinary learning environment, in addition to her professional goals, drew her to pursue the Certificate in Disability Policy and Services. “It was appealing to me to have the opportunity to learn and work collaboratively with colleagues whose academic backgrounds and professional experiences are different from my own,” she says, “but who had an interest in creating better policies and practices that would ultimately allow for more inclusion and opportunities for persons with disabilities.” 

The hallmark of the certificate program is how it combines interdisciplinary learning with individualized, targeted inquiry. “It can be flexibly integrated into any existing degree program,” says Fondell. “No one completes the program in the exact same way—the only thing in common is the core courses, which expose them to what they might be interested in, in terms of where they want to take a deeper dive [into policy and engagement].”

Collaboration beyond the classroom

In pursuing the certificate, students have the opportunity to network with representatives from local organizations that focus on disability policy and services in order to build connections for rewarding outreach projects. A popular practicum experience includes working with the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MCCD), a coalition of nearly fifty agencies that join forces to improve public policy surrounding disability services. The broad array of organizations assisting and advocating for people living with disabilities makes Minneapolis an excellent hub for students looking to make community connections relevant to their own discipline.

Elizabeth Vandre, who currently works at the University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare (CASCW), attests that the connections she made in the classroom and the community continue to be valuable points of contact. “The wealth of experience shared by my instructors and my classmates from various fields of studies created an invaluable network of resources I continue to utilize today as a social worker,” says Vandre.

Now over 25 years old, the Certificate in Disability Policy and Services program has united graduate students from many backgrounds around a common goal of better serving a population that is often neglected or avoided due to stigma or lack of understanding. Through these academic and independent study opportunities, University of Minnesota graduate students become informed participants in the greater conversation around disability policy and services, and advocates for the full integration of people with disabilities into the community.

–Andrea Willgohs