Reaching Out With Reaching Up
CUNY's Disabilities Consortium

By William Ebenstein, Ph.D.
Director, Consortium for the Study of Disabilities

The CUNY Consortium for the Study of Disabilities was established in 1989 in partnership with Reaching Up, Inc., a non-profit organization founded by John F. Kennedy, Jr. It evolved out of discussions between Mr. Kennedy and James P. Murphy, Chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees and a longtime parent-advocate for people with disabilities. The Consortium's mission is to support the higher education and career advancement of paraprofessional workers who provide health, education, and other human services to children and adults with disabilities and other chronic conditions. Twenty-five CUNY, SUNY and New York State private colleges have participated in Consortium-sponsored programs and activities.

In New York State, some 150,000 paraprofessional workers are employed in hundreds of agencies in the fields of developmental disabilities, mental health and home health care, as well as in school- based early intervention and special education programs. These workers provide the daily "hands-on" services that assist disabled persons in having more active, productive, and rewarding lives. Paraprofessionals represent almost 80% of the work force in these areas and play a central role within a fragmented health care delivery system. For persons with cognitive, emotional, or physical disabilities, the effectiveness of these services often depends on maintaining a long-term, stable relationship with a skilled, responsive, and compatible direct care-giver.

The Consortium was founded on the belief that high-quality services for people with disabilities are linked to the creation of jobs for paraprofessionals which reward competency, are well compensated, and allow opportunities for career advancement. Unfortunately, this sector is characterized by high turnover, low wages, minimal training, and few career opportunities. To address these problems, the Consortium has initiated programs to improve access to higher education for paraprofessionals, enhance their job skills, create attractive career paths, and reduce turnover. Progress in these areas, obviously, will substantially improve the quality of services we extend to people with disabilities.

This enterprise is guided by a public/private partnership composed of representatives from higher education, state government, community-based organizations, unions, advocacy groups, professional associations, and private foundations.

Kennedy Fellows

The Kennedy Fellows Mentoring Program was developed by John F. Kennedy, Jr., President of Reaching Up, Inc. It provides scholarships and career mentoring to paraprofessionals who are enrolled for at least six credits at a CUNY or SUNY college. Thus far, more than 250 individuals have been selected as Kennedy Fellows. They commit themselves to completing several years of specialized course work in the disability field. They are enrolled in such degree programs as special education, psychology, social work, nursing, speech-language pathology, occupational therapy, recreation, human services, child care, and gerontology. More than 75 participants have already completed baccalaureate or master's degree programs. As Kennedy Fellows increase their knowledge, improve their job skills and earn advanced degrees, they become eligible for promotions to positions with greater responsibility. In the future, it is expected that Kennedy Fellows will assume leadership roles in the disability field.

Paraprofessional Training

With additional funding provided by Reaching Up, private foundations, federal and state agencies, and unions, the Consortium has also supported the development of undergraduate course work in disability studies at colleges throughout New York. Each year about 1,000 paraprofessionals enroll in one of more than 40 courses newly created to address this rapidly expanding and changing field of health care. These specialized courses can be integrated into baccalaureate degree programs in related health, education and human service fields. Several of the most popular CUNY initiatives are detailed below:

  • Lehman College offers an interdisciplinary minor in Disability Studies through its Adult Degree Program.

  • The College of Staten Island offers an interdisciplinary Certificate Program in Disability Studies through its Departments of Psychology and Sociology.

  • Medgar Evers College offers a sequence of courses in Disability Studies through its Worker Education Program, in association with the Department of Special Education.

  • City College offers an interdisciplinary concentration in Disability Studies through the Center for Worker Education.

  • The CUNY Baccalaureate Program offers an individualized, University-wide, interdisciplinary concentration in Disability Studies.

    Higher education is the cornerstone of the Consortium's effort to create a stable, motivated, and skilled direct care work force. By providing access to credit-bearing college courses that can lead to undergraduate degrees, the Consortium increases career opportunities for the most dedicated paraprofessionals.

    U.S.-Caribbean Citizen Exchange Program in Disability Issues

    Recently, the Consortium received funding from the United States Information Agency to establish a U.S.-Caribbean Citizen Exchange Program in Disability Issues. This will be undertaken in association with the University of the West Indies Mona campus in Kingston, Jamaica.

    The purposes of the project are to strengthen non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Caribbean that provide health, education, and human services to people with disabilities and their families; to develop joint programs with UWI to train qualified personnel in the disability field; to support the disabled, their parents, and advocates to play a greater role in the delivery of services both in the Caribbean and the United States; and to improve the Rcultural competenceS of agencies in the U.S. that provide rehabilitation services to members of the Caribbean community.

    The first phase of the project consisted of a nine-day workshop on disability policy that was held at the University of West Indies in November 1995. In attendance were leaders of disability NGOs, university faculty, government officials, rehabilitation professionals and disabled persons and their parents from the U.S., Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados.

    The CUNY delegation included Lyda Clifton of the Consortium, Dean Alan Gartner from the Graduate School, Dean Deborah Shanley, representing Medgar Evers College and the Caribbean Research Center, and Professor Carolle Berotte Joseph, representing City College and the Haitian-American Bilingual Education Technical Assistance Center. In the summer of 1996, 10 representatives from the Caribbean will participate in one-month internships at New York agencies providing services to people with disabilities.

    The Citizen Exchange Program is expected to improve the working relationship between countries throughout the Americas. Such collaboration is especially important for CUNY and New York City. Fall 1992 undergraduate admissions data show that more than 40% of entering freshmen and transfer students cited a Caribbean country as their country of closest identity. In addition, Caribbean- Americans represent a large segment of the paraprofessional work force at human services agencies in New York City. Almost one-third of all Kennedy Fellows are Caribbean-Americans.

    The Consortium is exploring other international collaborations in the disability field. Future projects with Argentina, Denmark, and Vietnam, for example, are now in the planning stages.