Temple Times Online Edition
    APRIL 7, 2005
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Disability policy gets hard look in new class

Steven M. Eidelman, executive director of The Arc of the United States, leads Monday’s “Disability and Social Policy” class in a discussion about how disability issues are addressed in healthcare organizations.

Steven M. Eidelman pulls no punches when he talks about disability policy in the United States, much to the benefit of his students, who spend 150 intense minutes with him each Monday night.

“There’s not one disability policy in the United States, except for the Americans with Disabilities Act. And that’s about rights, not services,” said Eidelman as he recently addressed his master’s-level students in his “Disability and Social Policy” course, which is part of the University’s new disability studies program.

“Disability and social policy is a very living, very contemporary subject,” Eidelman continued. “It’s changing daily.”

Eidelman lives and breathes disability policy. His “day job” involves leading The Arc of the United States, the nation’s largest organization of — and for — people with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities. Founded in 1950 and based in Silver Spring, Md., The Arc works to ensure that Americans with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities — estimated at 7.2 million people — have the services and supports they need to grow, develop and live in their own communities.

But Eidelman’s career in policy goes back to the 1970s, when, as a social work graduate student, he accepted a yearlong field placement at the then-John F. Kennedy Institute for Handicapped Children. Years later, after a stint as executive director at the Blick Clinic for Developmental Disabilities in Akron, Ohio, Eidelman returned to serve as executive director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, leading the organization to implement innovative projects, programs and cutting-edge policies.

In between, Eidelman worked in Philadelphia, serving as director of mental retardation services in the city’s Department of Public Health, and, later, as state director of mental retardation in the state Department of Public Welfare.

Active in the deinstitutionalization movement for people with disabilities, Eidelman oversaw the closure of Pennhurst State School and Hospital in 1987 and began efforts to close other, smaller institutions in Pennsylvania.

Eidelman was the leading choice to teach “Disability and Social Policy.” It is one of five courses available to students working toward the 12-credit graduate certificate in disability studies, which debuted last fall, according to education professor Michael Dorn.

“He was our top choice because of his varied background and his involvement nationally and with the city and state,” said Dorn, who directs the certification program. “His awareness is multidisciplinary and multi-disability. He brings a lot of energy to our discussions. He’s Mr. History, particularly recent disability history. And he’s very available to the students.”

“One reason I wanted to teach was to show my appreciation for the important work Celia Feinstein and Diane Bryen at the Institute on Disabilities do for The Arc and on behalf of our constituents,” said Eidelman, who begins his day each Monday around 4:30 a.m., puts in a full work day, heads to Temple from the office, teaches, and then travels back home to Gaithersburg, Md. “And I’m very interested in hearing what students have to say.”

In lively class discussions, Eidelman is hearing plenty from his charges, who include, among others, city and suburban special-education teachers, a kinesiology doctoral student pursuing a disability studies certificate, and a master’s-level secondary education student.

Together, they’re exploring public policy issues related to disability and health, including the ADA, the Individuals with Disabilities Act, income support programs, vocational rehabilitation policies, and health insurance policies. With Eidelman’s guidance and incorporating their own professional experiences, students are assessing the effectiveness of the policies and the impact they have on people’s real lives, including people with disabilities, their family members and the professionals who work with them.

“There are two distributive systems in our society,” Eidelman told the class recently. “One is based on work. The other is based on need. People with disabilities are still, in some segments of society, the ‘worthy poor.’

“Our view of disability today goes right back to Elizabethan poor laws,” he continued. “Then, people with disabilities were viewed as charity. They had to prove they had disabilities and were worthy of public support. Today, the basic policy premises are about the same. Disability is tied to benefits. It’s a medical/administrative/legal phenomenon. It gets you eligible for something.

There’s a whole underbelly which keeps people with disabilities poor.”

Eidelman’s classes focus on the future and how policy must work to influence the real lives of real people.

“There are 850,000 people with intellectual disabilities living in a house with a parent over age 60 today in the United States,” Eidelman said in a recent class. “The new policy frontier is siblings. They’ll play an enormous role in the lives of their brothers and sisters.”

Student M.J. Lovett, a special-education teacher in Swedesboro, N.J., who completed her master’s degree in January, wasn’t planning to take more Temple classes. But when she heard Eidelman was teaching the policy class, she signed right up and decided to pursue a disability studies certificate.

“I just finished my master’s degree and I’m applying to law schools, but I said to myself, ‘I can’t not take this,’” Lovett said. “I didn’t want to deprive myself of the chance to learn from him.”

For more information on the graduate certificate in disability studies, which explores the historical, cultural and socio-political challenges and accomplishments of the disability community and culture, go to http://disabilities.temple.edu/programs/ds.

– By Barbara Baals