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Burton Blatt Institute Makes Inclusivity a Top-Priority

December 1, 2021
News source: Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University

The Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University’s College of Law has been striving for a more inclusive environment for people with disabilities in its work and research.

After receiving $4.3 million from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research in 2020, the BBI helped establish the Disability Inclusive Employment Policy (DIEP) Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC).

The BBI works on the Center in partnership with Harvard and Rutgers Universities.

“We want to bring hard science to this applied area to really make an impact on government policymakers, and also, of course, on the lives of people with disabilities,” said Peter Blanck, the chairman of BBI and a professor at the SU College of Law.

Since receiving the multi-million dollar grant from the national institute, Blanck said the BBI published articles and policy briefs on topics such as workplace accommodations and the intersectionality of people with disabilities with other marginalized groups such as the Black and LGBTQ communities.

The Disability Inclusive Employment Policy (DIEP) Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) divides its work into three different categories: gaining employment, job quality and retention, and employment reengagement, which aims to help people with disabilities re-enter the workforce.

While being grounded in academia, the research and training Center has a collection of partners in both the private and public sectors, such as the National Governors Association and Disability:IN, a nonprofit resource for disability inclusion in the business sector.

At BBI, Blanck said, “Inclusivity of people with disabilities is paramount. Everything we do must be inclusive of and driven by (people with disabilities). The Burton Blatt Institute and its partners have tried very hard to follow that principle.”

Fitore Hyseni, a doctoral candidate at SU who works at BBI, said that people with both physically visible and invisible disabilities make up a large part of the research team.

Stephen Kuusisto, the director of interdisciplinary programs and outreach at BBI, said, “In the disability rights movement, there is the phrase ‘nothing about us, without us.'”

“People with disabilities are less interested in having people without disabilities studying and directing them,” said Kuusisto, who is blind. Many people with disabilities instead want more autonomy and self-directed opportunity that comes from other people with disabilities.

“That’s where the sort of cultural dynamics of the disability movement are heading,” Kuusisto said. “We don’t want a series of great universities studying why we can’t get jobs — we want to create those jobs.”

Doug Kruse, who uses a wheelchair, is the director of Rutgers’ program for disability research. He has contributed to multiple publications posted on the research and training center’s website.

“Doug Kruse is an individual who uses a wheelchair, had a spinal cord injury, and he’s a leading labor economist on issues facing people with disabilities,” Blanck said. “And he just happens to be a distinguished professor at Rutgers.”

But the involvement of people with disabilities doesn’t just manifest in the BBI’s leadership. Some SU students with disabilities have reached out to the BBI looking for work, and two students will join BBI in the spring, potentially working with the research and training Center, Hyseni said.

The research and training Center also focuses on how COVID-19 will affect issues regarding disabilities. Lisa Schur, Yana van der Meulen Rodgers — both of whom are researchers from Rutgers University — along with Kruse published a paper discussing the effect COVID-19 had on the employment rate of people with disabilities.

They found, compared to people without disabilities, people with disabilities were greatly impacted by pandemic-related declines in employment.

“Our findings highlight the challenges faced by workers with disabilities, employers and policy-makers and set an important context for the studies on disability employment that we will be conducting in the Disability Inclusive Employment Policy Center,” the study reads.

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