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UI to be site of new national disability research institute

Craig Chamberlain, Education Editor
(217) 333-2894;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The University of Illinois will be the site of a new national Disability Research Institute supported by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

The federal agency announced this week the awarding of a five-year, $5.25 million grant to fund the institute, starting with $1.25 million for the year beginning June 1, when the institute will open.

The institute will be based in the College of Applied Life Studies on the UI's Urbana-Champaign campus, under the direction of Chrisann Schiro-Geist, a professor of community health. It also, however, will involve other campus units, as well as units or researchers at six other schools.

Three universities will serve as affiliate partners in the grant: the University of Chicago, through its National Opinion Research Center; Northwestern University, through its medical center's Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago; and Rutgers University.

Other schools or units involved outside the campus include the UI at Chicago, Northwestern University's Institute of Health Services Research and Policy Studies, Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and the University of Wisconsin at Stout. Being designated as the site for the institute is "a recognition of the leadership role that we have served in disability," said Tanya Gallagher, dean of the College of Applied Life Studies and co-principal investigator on the grant.

"We've long been a campus involved with issues related to disability, so [the institute] builds on what we have as our historical strength, and it represents a whole new phase of dealing with these issues."

The college is home to the first-of-its-kind Division of Rehabilitation-Education Services, which began pioneering work on disability issues and services more than 50 years ago.

The campus has been listed by several publications in recent years as among the top 10 most disability-friendly in the nation. New Mobility magazine listed the UI as No. 1.

Establishment of the institute marks the first time the Social Security Administration has created an organized research agenda in the area of disability, according to Schiro-Geist, who will serve as both the institute's director and co-principal investigator with Gallagher on the institute grant.

"In effect, we are going to be the research arm for the Social Security Administration in the area of disability," Schiro-Geist said.

"What we do will create an organized focus for research activities. It will create an institute that will be the focal point for the whole country where researchers in disability and public policy will come together to share ideas."

Other institute partners on the UI campus will be the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, Office of Continuing Education, Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences, Institute of Government and Public Affairs and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

As a research arm of the SSA, the institute will analyze agency data on more than 8 million recipients of income-support funds tied to disability, Gallagher said.

"The institute will prepare and make data available and interpretable to a number of groups and academics to do research, [as well as] to policy-makers and the public, with the goal that we better serve the needs of these individuals."

Training will be another goal, Schiro-Geist said.

"We're going to create research, we're going to be the repository for research, but we're also going to create training options -- including training Social Security's own workforce -- in the things that we learn."

The grant will pay mostly for establishing the institute. Additional funds for specific projects are expected to come from the SSA and elsewhere. Gallagher and Schiro-Geist are optimistic the institute will continue beyond five years.

"They [SSA] have been quite clear," Gallagher said, "that they are interested in a long-term relationship, and that this will only build."