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College of Law and School of Education create joint degree program in disability studies
College of Law and School of Education create joint degree program in disability studiesFebruary 12, 2003Cynthia J. Moritzcjmoritz@syr.edu
After working for three years at the Institute for Community Inclusion in Boston, Cindy Smith decided to earn a law degree to further her goal of developing policy for people with disabilities. She looked for a law school that would allow her to combine her two interests, and found only one: Syracuse University College of Law.
Julie Morse always knew she wanted to be a lawyer, and she knew she wanted to practice some area of law that would allow her to help people. But it wasn’t until she took a course about developmental disabilities as a senior at the University of Texas that she realized disability law was where she wanted to direct her energy. She too ended up at the College of Law. “No other law school was as welcoming, as willing to work on creating the type of program I was looking for,” she says.
While other law schools might offer a course here and there on disability law, Syracuse was in the process of putting together a degree in law and disability studies, a dual program of the College of Law and the School of Education, which boasts the first graduate disability studies program in the country.
“This was the only place in the country that was looking to create such a program,” Smith says. Starting this fall, Smith and Morse will be two of the program’s first students. When they complete the three-year program, Smith and Morse will each have earned both a J.D. and a master’s degree in education specializing in disability studies.
Prof. Arlene Kanter teaches a disability law course in the College of Law and was a leader, along with the School of Education’s Professor Steven J. Taylor, in putting together the new program. “Each year I have about five education Ph.D. students in my disability law course,” Kanter says, “and it’s incredibly enriching for both the law students and the education students. Creating the dual program was the natural next step.” According to Kanter and Taylor, the new SU program is the first such dual degree in the country.
“In recent years, we’ve had a number of students who were torn between pursuing our program in disability studies or studying law,” Taylor says. “They wanted a law degree, but they also wanted to understand the history of disability and current trends and issues in disability. The dual degree program will enable these students to have the best of both worlds.”
The dual degree program will not be for academic slackers. In order to complete the two degrees in three years, students will need to carry a heavy load of courses and take some classes during the summer. “It’s for students who are seriously committed to study,” Kanter says.
Students in the program will follow the usual law school curriculum during their first year. Their program during the second and third years will include courses in both the law school and the school of education. Some education courses will count as electives in the law school curriculum, and vice versa.
While it’s a little intimidating to know that she will be working to fulfill requirements in two different schools, Smith thinks the effort will be well worth it. “I think it’s scary that lawyers are doing disability law without ever having met a person with disabilities,” she says.
Morse thinks having both degrees will be a definite advantage in the job market. “There are lawyers who do disability law, but we will be among the first to come out with a dual degree in it,” she says. “We will have a really good background in disability studies.”
Graduates of the program will be qualified to work in many settings, including universities, law firms, research institutes and government agencies, Kanter says. Smith hopes to start out litigating disability cases, then move to a disabilities rights advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., and eventually into a government policymaking position. Morse is not sure whether she wants to work as a lawyer or in a disability rights organization.
“Whatever we choose to do, we will have strong credentials,” Smith says.