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An uncle with Down syndrome and a family that lovingly accepted and embraced his differences inspired Dr. Carolyn Shivers, associate professor of psychology at Niagara University, to learn more about people with disabilities and the impact of an ableist society on them and their families.

Dr. Shivers began working with people with disabilities during her high school and undergraduate years at preschools and summer camps. After high school, she attended the University of Notre Dame, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology. She went on to Vanderbilt University for her master’s and doctoral degrees before completing postdoctoral work at Michigan State University and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Her first research project, completed as a senior honors thesis at Notre Dame, was on mothers with children on the autism spectrum. In graduate school, she began focusing on the experiences of siblings of people with disabilities.

One of her first studies on siblings was comparing the stress experienced by siblings of people with autism to that experienced by siblings of individuals with Down syndrome. She learned that those with autistic siblings experienced more stress. A follow-up meta-analysis she completed on studies of siblings of autistic individuals indicated that they were more likely to have negative experiences for certain outcomes, including beliefs about disability, but didn’t imply why this might be the case.

Dr. Shivers believes that the way society treats people with autism is a significant factor, and she plans to explore that in her next research project. She intends to interview people with a variety of disabilities about the experiences they have had to develop a measure of ableism. 

“How do people interact with them? Can they get into buildings? Do they essentially have the same options that nondisabled people have? There are no quantitative measures of those kinds of things,” she said. “If we’re going to say that disabled people don’t do as well, but not ask why, or not ask what we, as a society, can do about it, then what are we even doing?”

Based on the responses, Dr. Shivers will create a list of the most common experiences, which will then be used to create a questionnaire to find out the ways people with disabilities have to change their own behavior to exist in today’s society. Ultimately, she would like to adapt the questionnaire for families so that she can learn more about how these experiences impact sibling relationships.

This fall, Dr. Shivers joined the faculty of Niagara University’s psychology department and has been sharing what she’s learned with her students. She hopes that her courses will enable them to use what they learn about accessibility and inclusion in both their personal and professional lives.

“It really is about what they can do, how they can exist in a society in a way that makes it more inclusive,” she said.

Niagara’s Vincentian mission and its focus on inclusion made the opportunity to join the psychology faculty here an attractive option for Dr. Shivers.

“I really like teaching about disability, but there aren’t a lot of universities that are open to disability work,” she said. “When I interviewed here, everyone that I spoke to was very open and very eager to hear more about my work and to talk about how that could be incorporated here.”

Dr. Shivers also appreciates the priority the university places on supporting students, because it aligns with her own philosophy of teaching.

I like the student focus,” she said, noting that, in her classes, students have many assignments from which they can choose, and that she offers “incredibly flexible deadlines” because she understands the other demands that they have on their time.

“I recognize I have the freedom to do that,” she added, acknowledging that hers is likely the first and only course dedicated to disability that they will ever take. “I want them to get something out of it and leave with the ability to consider disability in their worldview. If they can’t tell me what chromosomal configuration causes Prader-Willi syndrome, I don’t care. If they can tell me what the etiquette is for interacting with someone with a service dog, that’s excellent!”

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