Frontline Initiative

Fostering Interest in Human Service Careers
An Innovative Effort in Massachusetts


Dr. Richard J. Robison is director of Community Relations for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation and adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts

The course about mental retardation that I took during the spring semester made dramatic changes in my life, ideas, and perceptions. It also helped me notice the evolution of my feelings. I am so glad that I took this course. Mr. Robison and our guest presenters taught me about humanity. As a course requirement, we had to interview someone who had a disability. I interviewed a man who had mild retardation. When I went to meet him, I was very nervous because I did not know what to expect. Maybe I was expecting someone very different who might act weird and disturbing. My fearfulness grew while I was waiting to meet him.

Then the man came home and his parents introduced us. At that moment, I saw him as a person just like myself. He looked like any other person on the street. I was ashamed of myself. He was sweet and sensitive. I realized I could advocate for his rights and well-being in this society with people who were fearful and blind about mental retardation. I believed that this man and others deserved better life standards and acceptance in this society. They were humans with very real emotions and many abilities. I refused to see people with mental retardation as devalued anymore.

These excerpts from a personal reflection paper by Aysem, Oytun, and Atahan, presented at a 1996 “Future of Direct Service” conference in Boxboro, Massachusetts, illuminate the reasons behind a collaborative effort between state government and higher education in Massachusetts. Increasing understanding about disability issues, teaching, fostering interest in human service careers, and educating the public are the major goals of a partnership formed between the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation (DMR) and the University of Massachusetts (UMass).

The UMass-DMR partnership seeks to foster leadership on a range of social issues dealing with public practice, values, and customs which affect the lives of people with mental retardation and their families. The partnership has already strengthened existing relationships between the DMR and the five UMass campuses and has created a new undergraduate course at UMass-Amherst.

This course, entitled “Current Issues in Mental Retardation,” examines current practices in providing supports to people with mental retardation and their families. Students are introduced to the life experiences and issues of individuals with developmental disabilities in contemporary society, and they explore new models for providing supports occurring across the country and internationally. One of the requirements of the course is for students to spend some time with individuals with mental retardation and ⁄ or their families.

“We are very excited about this partnership,” Philip Campbell, DMR Commissioner, said of the collaboration. “It’s important to look ahead. We need to educate a new generation of human service professionals so that people with disabilities can have more opportunities to lead satisfying and productive lives. This association will help us to develop a more capable and diverse work force so that we can meet the needs of people with disabilities and their families.”

On June 8, 1996, the Future of Direct Care seminar was held in Boxboro to assess how the collaboration has progressed since its inception in September 1995. The seminar explored directions the partnership could take in the future. Representatives from UMass, the DMR, various advocacy organizations, and the private provider community came up with strategies for possible future directions. In his welcoming remarks, Commissioner Campbell outlined his thoughts on the future goals of the UMass-DMR collaboration. Included were:

  • To develop more courses of study on the college level;
  • To create internships so students can learn first-hand what it is like to provide support to people with disabilities;
  • To increase understanding and share experiences between students and individuals with disabilities;
  • To use the resources and expertise of academia in social science, psychology, public health, research, etc. to improve the lives of people with disabilities;
  • To create more opportunities for people with disabilities to share their thoughts and experiences within the context of higher education;
  • To encourage more research into issues that effect the disability community; and
  • To gradually improve the education and training of direct support staff and managers who care for people with developmental disabilities.

The commissioner also announced that the DMR will commit $500,000 over the next three to five years toward the fulfillment of these goals.

An unexpected but very emotional highlight of the seminar came when a UMass student, Aysem Oytun Atahan, who had just completed the new course in the spring ’96 semester, shared her personal reflections on the lessons she learned.

After attending this course, Ms. Atahan shared her goals. “The first is to work to see this course offered as a requirement in the psychology department at UMass. This is important because I witnessed many of my classmates in clinical psychology referring to people with mental retardation as devalued or abnormal beings. Universities are the most powerful and appropriate places to correct misconceptions about mental retardation.

“My second goal is to learn more about mental retardation. With the valuable knowledge and experience I have gained here in your country, I would like to go back to my country [Turkey] and stop the ignorance and suffering. As we all know, it is very hard and a very long way to go, but at least I am not blind anymore. I believe that this awareness of mental retardation is the cornerstone to overcome problems in this area.” Ms. Atahan is now exploring human services as a career option. Her comments serve to underscore the tremendous value of a project like this. We are excited in Massachusetts about the possibilities this newly created partnership will bring. It has already proven invaluable to the many students who have participated in the courses and seminars brought about by this effort.