Niagara University officials and members of the community celebrate disability awareness all year long.

October is widely recognized as “Disability Awareness Month,” but at Niagara University, the work in this field continues all year long.

The ways in which Niagara University works with and for people with disabilities are many and varied. From preparing future educators who appreciate and embrace the diverse range of the needs of their students and families, to providing first responders with the knowledge necessary to best serve and respond to individuals with disabilities, Niagara has taken a leadership role in enhancing both awareness of, and service to, people with disabilities of all ages. 

New Program – Online M.S. in Early Childhood/Early Childhood Special Education

Niagara University offers special education programs through its College of Education. Recently, it expanded its program offerings to include a master’s degree in early childhood/early childhood special education (birth through grade 2) that is available in a 100 percent online format and leads to initial certification. This enables busy professionals from Western New York and across New York state to take the necessary coursework to enter this field without coming to campus.

“Young children are still developing their neural networks, and that is why it is so important to identify disabilities early when interventions are especially successful,” said Chandra J. Foote, Ph.D., dean and professor in the College of Education. “That’s why we are so excited to receive New York state approval for our master’s degree in early childhood/early childhood special education program to be offered online and as a first certification. This will allow us to prepare many more professionals to meet the needs of young children and their families.” 

“The New York State Department of Labor anticipates that we will need 950 additional preschool special educators by 2026,” she continued. “That’s a 20.6% increase in need. In Western New York, the need is expected to be even greater, at 24.4%. These positions also provide a high-quality living wage as the state mean salary is $84,450. We’re happy to provide this opportunity for people who want to pursue this critical career path.”

NU Set to Host 2020 Special Olympics

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Dr. Dennis Garland with Special Olympians.

Niagara University was also the first school in the country to offer a credit-bearing course for teacher candidates to learn about disability culture and ways to appreciate the various talents of individuals through a partnership with the Special Olympics. Since 2006, Niagara has hosted the Special Olympics New York’s Western Regional Basketball Tournament as the culminating experience for students who take the Special Olympics: Coaching and Games Management course. The upcoming event is scheduled for May 2, 2020.

This special course provides students with knowledge about the nature of individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities while developing skills to become certified Special Olympics coaches. As part of the course, the students train children and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities to compete in the annual regional basketball tournament, which they plan and host.

“A key tenet of the Niagara University mission is to inspire our students to serve all members of society, especially the poor and marginalized,” said Dr. Dennis Garland, assistant professor of education, who teaches the course. "We are fortunate to have incredible partners like Special Olympics New York. I am very humbled and proud of all of the Western New York community members who partner with the university. This event is a culmination of a collective effort to provide the athletes with opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with each other and the community."

Disability Awareness Training Celebrates 10 Years at NU

Niagara University’s Catholic and Vincentian commitment to foster diversity and inclusion impacts individuals with disabilities across the country, as well. In 2010, the university was awarded a three-year, $550,000 grant from the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council to develop a training curriculum for law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical services, and 911 operators/dispatchers that provides them with the knowledge necessary to best serve and respond to individuals with disabilities. That funding, which was extended through 2015, supported the establishment of Niagara University’s First Responders Disability Awareness Training program, a customized Train the Trainer program that sensitizes and educates participants on all aspects of disabilities and the challenges they may encounter as they interact with and respond to incidents, situations, and accidents that involve individuals with disabilities, including mental health issues. The program was created in cooperation with all major first responder associations, councils, and state offices, and is the only program in the nation that provides this kind of comprehensive training.

“Everyone needs disability awareness training,” said David Whalen, project director for the NUFRDAT program. “However, first responders have found themselves in challenging scenarios that can be addressed with this specialized training.”

Since its inception, New York, Missouri, and South Dakota have contracted NUFRDAT’s full training program, while Virginia, New Jersey, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas have contracted it in various capacities. The Fire Department of the City of New York, the largest in the United States and universally recognized as the world's busiest and most highly skilled emergency response agency, has also contracted NUFRDAT for training. In 2014, the program received the Forging Pathways Award from the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council.

In 2017, NUFRDAT received a three-year, $320,000 grant from the New York State Developmental Disabilities Planning Council to fund the development of training in New York state for emergency managers, those who have a role in emergency response, individuals with disabilities, and service provider agencies. The training will educate these constituents on planning, preparedness, response, and recovery for individuals with disabilities.

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