New job: Director of the Institute for Research and Training at Landmark College, a two-year institution in Vermont that specializes in serving students with learning disabilities and attention-deficit disorders
Previous position: Associate director of the Center for Students With Disabilities at the University of Connecticut
Highest degree: Ph.D. in special education from UConn
Two years ago, Ibrahim Dahlstrom-Hakki, one of the education and outreach specialists at Landmark College, called to ask if I wanted to be an external evaluator for a National Science Foundation grant he was going to apply for on universal design in math and science. Unfortunately, he didn't get it, but the feedback was encouraging. Last November he called to say he was planning to resubmit, and would I still be interested in being an external reviewer? He added, "By the way, we're looking for a new director for Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. Do you know someone? Or would you yourself be interested?"
I said, "Well, tell me more about it." When I spoke with Landmark's president, Peter Eden, I told him I wasn't really looking for a new job, but as we started talking, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to bring together research, practice, and technology for students with learning disabilities and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. It was something that I simply had to try. This was the new frontier.
Landmark College is known for working with students with learning disabilities and ADHD, but now they are working to understand more of the complex needs of students with multiple disabilities, particularly students with autism-spectrum disorders. At other institutions where I've worked, it was always a challenge to find enough students to do field research; about 3 percent to 9 percent of the population of postsecondary students has a learning disability. It's different here at Landmark, where all of our 500 students have diagnosed learning disabilities.
We have faculty here who have years of experience in the hands-on, practical, applied aspect of working with such students. My hope is that the faculty can work together to conduct scientific research to spread the word in ways we haven't done in the past. We'd like to invite the outside world to come in and observe how universal design is being implemented in multiple classrooms.
Universal design is rooted in an idea originally conceived by Ron Mace in the field of architecture. It starts with the premise that when we draw up the blueprint for a building, we should from the get-go understand that different people with different abilities will be using that building; therefore, the blueprint should be inclusive from the start. That way we don't have to retrofit it for people with disabilities. Transferring that idea to education suggests teaching should anticipate that students will have different preferences, approaches, and learning profiles, and the learning environment should be inclusive of these individual differences from the planning stage.
Landmark College applies the principles of universal design right in the classroom and studies what works and what doesn't. Research into cutting-edge computer science and tablet devices is opening doors that were closed to many of these students.
These are all the factors that really interested me in the position, which I started in January. Sometimes when I listen to my own voice, I hear the excitement about what is yet to be discovered. This is my 27th year in the field, and I guess it's still possible for an old dog to learn new tricks.
—As told to Dan Berrett