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Interdisciplinary and family-centered: Educating generations of professionals serving children with disabilities

Researcher: Harriet Able
Harriet Able directory image

Over the last 25 years, Harriet Able, Ph.D., has continuously secured professional development grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) to equip master’s and doctoral students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively serve young children with disabilities.

Since 1998, Able — a professor who has been with the UNC School of Education since 1993 — has applied for and received 14 of these grants, totaling more than $12.5 million in funding.  

Of those 14 grants, nine provided support and training for master’s-level students — between 30-40 students per grant. Five leadership grants focused on doctoral students. Over the course of one leadership grant, usually five years, six students earned their Ph.D. And each of those grants took an interdisciplinary approach, funding students not only in education but students from allied health professions – occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, child psychologists. 

The total impact of Able’s grants is hundreds of UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students who were able to learn from experts in child development, special education, allied health, and more. They were taught evidence-based practices, with a focus on family centered and interdisciplinary services. Grant funded students received full tuition support, health insurance, and stipends.  

And when they left Chapel Hill, they entered communities across North Carolina and the country carrying Able’s approach with them, to serve children with disabilities and their families.  

Recognizing the needs of dedicated educators 

Long before pursuing a Ph.D. and joining the academy, Able was a new special education teacher on South Carolina’s barrier islands. She worked with members of the Gullah and Geechee communities, descendants of enslaved people brought to the Lowcountry from central and west Africa.  

Because of the islands’ isolation, change has come slowly. That has allowed the communities to hold on to cultural traditions that their ancestors brought from their homelands, but it has also meant that access to services has been limited.  

At just 21 years old, Able visited family homes of children with disabilities. Even though she was well trained as a teacher, she realizes now that she didn’t know how to relate to families that looked different from hers. She hadn’t been trained in that.  

“I learned so much from those families,” Able said. “I came to understand the need for continuous, up-to-date knowledge about best practices. If we are working with children and families, we owe them the very best interventions that are research-based.” 

Able’s next career step took her to the Colorado Department of Education, where she conducted technical assistance training for teachers and allied health professionals – speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, nurses, and school psychologists – who work with young children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  

She learned about OSEP grants while earning her doctorate in education and human development at Vanderbilt University. She was the recipient of one.  

“I was very fortunate, because my doctoral education was completely funded on one of these leadership grants,” she said. By enabling her to focus solely on her doctoral training, the OSEP grant allowed her to delve deep into her research, explore innovative ideas, and engage in meaningful collaborations with fellow scholars and experts across the fields of special education, psychology, public policy, and ethics.   

“When I got out of school, I didn’t owe any money. It really was a gift,” she said. “So, when I graduated and went into higher education, I felt obligated and wanted to write these grants to support practicing professionals who wanted to continue their education.” 

Serving special educators and the field(s) 

Jessica Amsbary Ph.D., program coordinator for the School’s Master of Education for Experienced Teachers (MEdX) program whose students — working early childhood educators — benefit from these training grants and a former advisee of Able, called Able “a brilliant genius” at securing OSEP funding. 

“She knows what she needs to do. She does it and continues to do it,” Amsbary said. “The result is, educating and supporting students who go on to be strong, inclusive advocates, strong advocates for children with autism, and highly skilled educators and researchers.”  

To ensure a robust data set when applying for a grant, Able cultivates and maintains relationships with both master’s-level and doctoral students as they make their way through their programs. 

“A big piece of it comes from her personal connection with students,” Amsbary said. “She stays in touch with them throughout their time in the program. She has the data and the information to prove that they are benefiting, that they’re learning, that they’re making a difference. Then she stays in touch as they continue their careers, so she has follow-up data to add to grants moving forward. She knows the satisfaction rate when students exit the program, and she sends surveys to employers.”  

The research outcomes of this long stretch of work center on interdisciplinarity. In a 2017 article for Infants and Young Children that was among the journal’s most-read articles that year, Able and co-authors conducted an extensive focus group study with an interdisciplinary group of early intervention professionals serving young children birth to age five. The focus group members shared dilemmas they experienced related to family-professional and interprofessional conflicts as well as those related to policy and administrative issues. Based on their practice dilemmas, Able expanded a framework for systematic ethical reflection and problem solving based on earlier research she had conducted in the area of ethics and decision-making in health care for young children with chronic illness and disabilities. 

“It’s important to me that my work is translational, that research findings are applied to practice, and practice questions are incorporated into future research,” Able said. “My goal is to make my research accessible, relevant, and useful to families and teachers of young children and youth with disabilities. Interdisciplinary collaboration has been the keystone of my work because that is how professionals must interact when best servicing children and youth who are at risk or who have disabilities and their families.” 

Able has published close to 50 journal articles and given about 100 presentations, dating back to 1980, but among the things Able is most proud of in her career is leading the development of  the undergraduate Child Development and Family Studies program at Carolina, which has evolved into the Human Development and Family Science program that enrolls more than 300 undergraduate students each year.  

“When I teach undergraduates, I always have students do what I call a family internship. They have to go into homes and experience routine family life, and then do some service for a family,” she said. “It’s just important in order for us to be empathetic caregivers, to be able to put our feet in the shoes of someone else. All families are different.” 

‘Huge impact’  

Able learned the value of an interdisciplinary framework during her tenure in South Carolina. There she also gained the insight that what proves effective for one family may not be feasible for another.  

She recalled working with three-year-old twin boys with cerebral palsy. Able and her fellow teachers wanted the children to learn how to walk so they could be independent, but the family would bring them to school, carrying them like babies. Able decided to make a home visit, thinking she would have dedicated time to do therapy with the twins. 

At the home, she discovered the boys were being raised by their grandmother, not their mother, and that she was also raising three other children under the age of eight. Still, the grandmother welcomed Harriet with a slice of chess pie and a glass of sweet tea. They always had a visit on the front porch  before she got to work with the boys. 

“I hadn’t been trained to relate to grandmothers or family members that were a lot older than me, and that were very culturally different from me,” Able recalled. “I tried to be the teacher with them, and that didn’t work. What did work was to use my relationship-building skills, to learn about their family.”  

Able realized over time that the best way to work with the twins, or any child, was to understand their family’s values and priorities. “That was a big lift for me,” she said. 

Able has worked ever since to ensure that it isn’t a big lift for professionals who work with families of children with disabilities. All families are different. Family engagement, or family involvement, is always on a continuum.   

“One family that is very engaged might have a strong advocate, who has all the resources and comes to all the meetings ready to go,” she said. “But another family is equally engaged and involved if they get their children up, dressed and fed before school. That has always been something I’ve tried to keep in mind and to instill in my students.” 

The ability to center a family needs to be shared by all the professionals that may interact with them on behalf of a child with disabilities. This is why Able’s grants not only encompass assistance and resources, but also comprehensive training opportunities with and in collaboration with allied health professionals. 

“Families with children with disabilities are inundated with paperwork, multiple professionals, and multiple resources,” she said. “That’s why the core of what I’ve done has been interdisciplinary, because for disciplines to be able to work well together, it helps if they’re playing together. My doctoral program was very interdisciplinary, and that had an impact on me.” 

This approach ensures that students funded by these grants already have experience in collaborating with other professionals. “I’ve always felt that seamless services and supports for these families begins with strong collaboration among the disciplines,” Able said. 

Able’s impact ensures that the instinct to collaborate is built into these professionals from the beginning.  

“There are hundreds of students out there, former students both at the master’s level and the doctoral level, that have benefited from this groundbreaking experience at a big university, getting interdisciplinary collaboration opportunities,” Amsbary said. “Knowing people across disciplines when you graduate from your program is a really big deal, because then you can go on to collaborate with them, and already know the benefits of that.  

 “Harriet’s impact is huge.”