Institute for Disability Studies Continues to Transform Lives

By: Van Arnold

Inclusion and opportunity - pillars that have helped establish a secure foundation for the Institute for Disability Studies (IDS) at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM).

For more than 40 years, IDS has provided interdisciplinary education, community services, information dissemination and research to Mississippians with developmental and other disabilities. IDS is the state’s only University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) and one of just 67 nationally.

IDS Executive Director Dr. Rebekah Young says the Institute’s relevance cannot be overstated.

“People with disabilities, including college students, are often underserved in all aspects of life, such as healthcare, education, housing and employment,” she said. “They often lack knowledge and access to the resources and supports that are available to them. Organizations like IDS help bridge the gap between resources and supports by researching the effectiveness of existing resources and identifying emerging needs. Then, we work to create programs and supports that help provide opportunities, information, and connections directly to people with disabilities.”

Created by federal legislation in the 1960s, UCEDDs are associated with universities across the United States and its territories and promote independence, productivity, and community inclusion for people with disabilities.

IDS has offices on USM’s Hattiesburg campus and Gulf Park campus in Long Beach, as well as an office in Jackson, Miss. While these represent the hubs, IDS provides services that extend statewide. All funding comes from federal and state grants, plus donations from other sources.

The Institute includes 28 staff members – 19 full-time and nine part-time. Two graduate assistants provide help each semester. Inclusion is not just a catchy buzzword at IDS. Young points out that IDS features a diversified staff that includes nearly half who have a documented disability.

Young was named executive director in 2018 after serving the previous year as interim director. She held the title of associate director for three years and also served as the Executive Coordinator for Planning and Administration. She counts among the Institute’s more significant milestones a program called Project SEARCH funded by the Mississippi Council on Developmental Disabilities.

“Project SEARCH helps prepare high school students with disabilities for competitive employment by partnering with businesses to provide real world work experiences through internships,” said Young. “Because of the success IDS experienced with the program, the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services has expanded the project across the state.”

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, an estimated 43,000,000 U.S. citizens have disabilities, and a 2019 report indicated that approximately 7.4 million have developmental disabilities. Many more Americans are at high risk for developing disabilities because of poor prenatal care, poor environmental living conditions, lack of early educational opportunities, and lack of access to appropriate health and human services.

Statistics show that individuals with disabilities on various levels may be severely disadvantaged socially, vocationally, economically, and educationally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 817,000 Mississippians have some form of disability.

IDS has such a vast scope across the state that tracking an exact number of people benefitting from the Institute’s services is practically impossible. The most recent five-year average includes approximately 9,810 served per year. Young estimates that IDS has likely reached between 350,000-400,000 people during its existence.

IDS Associate Director Dr. Jerry Allison has served in various capacities at the Institute since 2005. He has witnessed exponential growth at IDS during that time as the Institute steadily built a robust clientele and esteemed profile.

“When I first came to IDS, we had limited programs and services that targeted the University students and local students in Hattiesburg, the surrounding areas, and the Gulf Coast,” said Alliston. “Today, we have several programs that assist students before and while attending college through direct service activities/programs, educational supports, volunteer opportunities and more. In addition, IDS has continued to provide training and technical assistance to the University faculty and staff, as well as professionals providing transition to adulthood services.”

Notable programs/opportunities offered by IDS include:

  • The USM LEND Program, which is part of the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) program network that provides long-term, graduate level interdisciplinary training as well as interdisciplinary services and care. The purpose of the USM LEND Training Program is to improve the health of infants, children, and adolescents with disabilities.
  • Training, Resources and Information for the Advancement of Disability (TRIAD) Service AmeriCorps is an inclusive service program through the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service. The TRIAD AmeriCorps program focuses on health education and also general community service.  The health education is provided to middle and high school students with disabilities in the partnering school districts of Forrest, Lamar, Harrison, and Hancock Counties.
  • The Transition of Teens to Adult Life (ToTAL) program was established to assist with the pre-employment needs of youth and young adults with disabilities ages 14-21.  Through the creation of a center located on the Hattiesburg Campus of The University of Southern Mississippi, ToTAL serves as a counseling, work-based training and internship site.

Recreation and sports remain an integral part of IDS programming. Several athletes comprise a competitive community-based wheelchair basketball team. Many of these same athletes compete in softball and tennis. Later this month the IDS wheelchair softball squad will travel to Chicago to participate in the Wheelchair Softball World Series.

Young beams when discussing another significant box checked by the Institute. Earlier this spring the Mississippi State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) Board approved a “Rise to the Top” certificate program for USM.

“We have been working with the School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Professional Development for several years to establish an official college program for individuals with intellectual disabilities here at USM,” said Young. “We are excited to be able to offer this certificate beginning in the fall semester. This is the second approved postsecondary program for students with intellectual disabilities in Mississippi.”

When asked what provides the most satisfaction in his work at IDS, Alliston offers a two-fold answer.

“First, we jokingly say that no one person puts the “I” in IDS. We truly are a work family of dedicated staff that work as a team to provide programs and services,” he said. “Second, I always tell students that I have the best job in the world. I get to write grants to start new programs that directly meet the current needs of Mississippians with disabilities.”

Young echoes Alliston’s sentiments while stressing that IDS strives to fulfill the University’s overarching mission.

“I know that as a University we are trying to build a community and to educate a community,” she said. “And at IDS we’re trying to do that same thing. We’re just trying to focus on people with disabilities and, at the end of the day, we are all people. We are all humans, and we all live, work, and play together. So, it’s important to have an institute like this at USM where we can help promote not only our mission and vision but that of the University as well.”

Learn more about the Institute for Disability Studies.

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