Dr. James Lawler has been a close partner of AHRC New York City for over a decade. Through the courses he teaches at Pace University, hundreds of people receiving services and over 1,500 students have been partnered together in service-learning projects, providing numerous benefits to all involved.
“For students acting as mentors, most have never met a person with developmental disabilities,” Dr. Lawler said in his office in lower Manhattan. “So this is a new experience for many of them.”
As a professor at the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, Dr. Lawler’s work in these classes frequently focuses on how technology can improve the lives of people with disabilities. “We seek to apply technology to a marginalized group in society,” he explained. “People with disabilities are the last minority that has not been recognized as a whole.”
Community Engagement Courses
These community engagement courses are held twice per semester with 24 students per course. Students are partnered with a person receiving services from AHRC NYC; departments that have participated include Adult Day Services, Employment and Business Services, and Educational Services through the AHRC Middle High School. The partners go on community outings with one another, work on computer-based presentations, and develop relationships.
“Quite of a number of students stay in touch with those that they partner with,” Dr. Lawler said.
Melanie Greene took Dr. Lawler’s class in her sophomore year at Pace, and it changed her educational trajectory. “Speaking with my mom before I took the class, I didn’t know if I could emotionally handle it because I hadn’t been exposed to the population before,” Melanie said.
Over the last semester, Melanie created a curriculum for people with disabilities to communicate using Amazon Echo, a wireless speaker, and voice command device. She has previously done research on wearable tech devices, especially focusing on health, and recently went to Atlanta for a joint presentation with Dr. Lawler. Now a senior, Melanie is grateful she overcame her initial trepidation.
“I feel like every experience in this class has been life-changing,” she said.
Dr. Lawler began working with the agency through a connection with Dr. Marilyn Jaffe Ruiz, an AHRC NYC Board Member who is also Professor Emerita of Nursing at the Lienhard School of Nursing at Pace University. While he had been in limited partnerships with other service providers before, Pace’s and AHRC NYC’s bond has grown stronger over the past decade.
“Dr Lawler opened up college courses to people from AHRC,” Dr. Carole Gothelf, Director, Individualized Supports, said. “AHRC is aligned with Dr. Lawler in our shared vision of access to higher education for people with I/DD. People’s capacity grows when they have access to opportunities that support their interests and when they frequent exciting environments where new interests can develop and be nurtured.”
Dr. Lawler’s mission is to improve the rights and lives of people with disabilities through education and technology. In addition to the community engagement course, Dr. Lawler has been actively involved in setting up a pilot Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program at Pace; he hopes it will be an official program by 2018.
“This has been an opportunity for me to have more impact on my students,” Dr. Lawler said. “I tell them that when you complete university you’re going to forget 95 percent of what you learned–I want to be part of that 5 percent and make them advocates for people with disabilities.“