CUNY SPS Celebrates Disability Awareness Month—and the People that Make Higher Education Accessible to All

Photo of CUNY LaGuardia Community College Professor Dr. Reem Jaafar

Part One in Our Series Spotlighting Faculty and Students From the CUNY SPS Disability Services in Higher Education Program

The CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) joins the rest of the City University of New York (CUNY) in celebrating CUNY Disability Awareness Month, an annual University-wide observance designed to shine a spotlight on the disability community in all its diversity.

As part of this observance, CUNY SPS and other schools are hosting multiple events throughout the month of April. Visit here for a calendar of CUNY Disability Awareness Month events.

For many individuals at CUNY, this month also offers the opportunity to recognize the many innovative programs and initiatives that have made post-secondary education more accessible for students with learning differences—especially at CUNY SPS which, as part of its portfolio of groundbreaking online disability studies programs, offers a MS and Advanced Certificate in Disability Services in Higher Education (DSHE).

The first program of its kind in the country, the CUNY SPS Disability Services in Higher Education (DSHE) equips graduates with the knowledge and skills they need to provide mandated accommodations to students with disabilities in higher education settings. The coursework includes theoretical, conceptual, and practical information that provides graduates with sound philosophical grounding in addition to building skills that they will apply in the field.

Dr. Reem Jaafar (pictured above) enrolled in the Advanced Certificate in DSHE program to further develop her skills in teaching a diverse student body and to enhance her ability to assess support programs, student outcomes, and overall institutional effectiveness. As a math professor at LaGuardia Community College and Director of Research and Evaluation at the Queens STEM Academy, she strives to embody the caring and informed perspective that drives this unique program, continuously seeking opportunities to improve her practice and better serve her students.

Dr. Jaafar, who has a background in physics, explained that she has always felt driven to ask “why” questions, whether she’s considering "Why do two bodies with different masses take the same time to reach the ground in free fall?"—or why some students often struggle to succeed in STEM classes. This need to understand “why” inspired her to enroll in the CUNY SPS Advanced Certificate DSHE program and use her newfound knowledge to improve educational outcomes for all her students, including disabled students.

Dr. Jaafar first identified accessibility as an opportunity for institutional improvement while co-leading a self-study for LaGuardia’s reaccreditation. The following year, she and a colleague decided to examine math outcomes for students registered with the Office of Accessibility and found that the “results reflected barriers for success in math courses that may be unique to the subject.” She noted that findings like this help to explain why there is a “low percentage of people with disabilities pursuing careers in STEM.” She also highlighted the fact that this issue is particularly relevant for LaGuardia, given its commitment to expanding “access and success in STEM for historically underserved students.”

To help get answers to the “why” of these barriers and to identify evidence-based interventions, Dr. Jaafar began taking courses in CUNY SPS’ Advanced Certificate DSHE program. Today, she works continually “to apply and practice the knowledge I acquire [at the School] to create more inclusive and accessible learning environments for my students.” She also brings this information home in the form of professional development. She is currently focusing her efforts on establishing a partnership with the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC) in order to bring accessibility-related professional development to a national audience.

Finally, Dr. Jaafar is also keeping her eye on the big picture, namely on the need to create a more just society through higher education. She recently joined forces with State Senator Andrew Gounardes to call for more state funding in support of college students with disabilities. Together, they wrote an op-ed [“For students with disabilities, higher education is a promise unfulfilled,” Times Union, March 6, 2024] which highlighted the fact that too few working-age New Yorkers with disabilities are employed (39%), while their poverty rate (30%) is approximately three times that of New Yorkers without disabilities. “Giving these [disabled] New Yorkers the support they need to finish college not only sets them up for lifelong success,” the op-ed explains, “it [also] strengthens our economy and makes our communities more equitable.” 

For Dr. Jaafar, CUNY Disability Awareness Month is a time to reflect upon the efforts she and other advocates at CUNY have made to support students with disabilities, and to plan out how to expand this work further. To this end, she is excited to attend the April 12 talk “Justice in the Built Environment: From Accessibility to Anti-Ableist Architecture,” hosted by the CUNY SPS student group the Disability and Access Coalition and featuring architect and DAC member Elizabeth Austin. She also plans to attend the 6th Annual CUNY Neurodiversity in-person Conference, which LaGuardia will host on April 19.  

Dr. Jaafar is also planning to make a few phone calls to state lawmakers this April and to read her former colleague Nathan Dickmeyer’s new memoir Acting Normal, where she hopes to learn from his journey so she can reflect further on “how we can create better organizations that work for everyone.”

About the CUNY SPS Disability Studies Programs

Disability Studies is an emerging academic field that explores disability from multiple perspectives, including the social sciences, humanities, science, and the law. The CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) offers groundbreaking, fully accredited programs within Disability Studies. The School’s offerings include a BA, Advanced Certificate, and MA in Disability Studies, and an Advanced Certificate and MS in Disability Services in Higher Education.

About the CUNY School of Professional Studies

As New York's leading online school since 2006, the CUNY School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) offers the most online bachelor's and master's degree options at the City University of New York and serves as the University's first undergraduate all-transfer college. With 26 degrees and numerous other non-degree and grant-funded workplace learning programs, CUNY SPS meets the needs of adults who wish to finish a bachelor's degree, progress from an associate's degree, earn a master's degree or certificate in a specialized field, and advance in the workplace or change careers. Consistently ranked highly by U.S. News & World Report for its online offerings, CUNY SPS has emerged as a nationwide leader in online education. The School's renowned and affordable online programs ensure that busy working adults may fulfill their educational goals on their own time and schedule.

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