Dr. Mary Ann Cummins Prager is Associate Vice President for Student Access and Support Services at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) and also the Director of the Center on Disabilities. She holds a doctorate in educational leadership from UCLA and has been involved in the disabilities field for many years. Beginning in the early 90s, Dr. Cummins Prager served in a variety of leadership positions on the campus and has chaired many campus efforts to create a more inclusive environment for persons with disabilities. She has served as the campus ADA Coordinator, chaired the Campus Wide Disabilities Issues Board, and has administrative oversight responsibility for the National Center on Deafness. She is a frequent presenter to audiences interested in learning about assistive technology, access to college for students with disabilities and transitioning issues for college students with disabilities particularly those with mental health disabilities. This year’s Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference is the 4th conference Dr. Cummins Prager has led. She was interviewed by ATN's John M. Williams.
Williams: What draws you to the disability field?
Dr. Prager: Several of my close family members have disabilities. From a professional perspective, my doctorate is in educational leadership and I have always been interested in how people learn and the barriers to learning, particularly as it impacts access to college.
I am very influenced by Dr. Mel Levine’s work as it relates to learning and his perspective that all children, but particularly children who learn differently from what is considered to be the norm, may benefit from a strengths based approach. I have found that both in the educational setting and in the workplace, we are too often concerned with a deficits based model focusing on what people cannot do rather than a strengths based model that utilizes the strengths, abilities and affinities of each individual. At the Center we are committed to changing that through the manner in which we serve the 840 students registered with our office, the annual conference and our training activities.
Williams: What are some of your responsibilities at the University besides preparing for the annual AT Conference?
Dr. Prager: Besides being director of the Center on Disabilities I am also Associate Vice President for Student Access and Support Services which allows me to be an advocate for a strengths based model on a broad scale. At the Center on Disabilities we are testing out a variety of approaches to helping students utilize strengths to mitigate weaknesses. We have a very successful internship and job placement program and attribute this to the work that staff are doing with students early in their college career to engage them in realistic self appraisal. We firmly believe that if students select a major based on a realistic understanding of themselves, rather than parental influence or some type of external pressure such as the job market, they will have a greater chance of achieving their goals. Through a variety of assessments and a guided process, students learn more about who they are and apply that knowledge as they make choices about classes, majors and careers.
I also spend a great deal of time in outreach to a variety of communities, talking about pathways to college for students with disabilities. Realistically there are some unique challenges that arise when students with disabilities transition to college. By discussing these issues with high school students, their parents, teachers and counselors my hope is that students will be better prepared for the challenges they may face. I love this part of my work as I am passionate about access, believing that the college experience is a transformative one with lasting value on a personal level and should be available to all.
Finally, whether as it relates to the conference, student services, or training programs I am constantly engaged in a search for best practices that we can integrate into the Center’s work. In particular, over the last several years, I have focused on building stronger international ties as I know there is a great deal we can learn from global leaders who are facing some of the same challenges that we are. Because we are located in an incredibly diverse section of the United States I am particularly concerned about cultural competency. We need to understand how disabilities are viewed in different cultures and how we can integrate that knowledge into building relationships and effectively serving our stakeholders whether students, community members or international attendees at the conference.
Williams: Does the CSUN have an Assistive Technology Center?
Dr. Prager: We do not have a separate AT Center and in fact dismantled it several years ago believing it was counter to our commitment to universal access and inclusion. Instead we have a commitment to providing assistive technology at points of contact across campus where technology and learning intersect. We did this because we want students to be able to access the curricular experts whether that is in a lab or in the library and be in the company of fellow students. Our students indicated that they did not want to be in a separate AT center where they could not meet with their peers without disabilities and interact with faculty in an informal manner. We are acutely aware that we are not subject area experts in all of the academic disciplines and that students with disabilities need to have the same access to faculty as their peers without disabilities.
We do have an assistive technology specialist and provide training to students who are not already proficient in assistive technology. The specialist also trains faculty on assistive technology while at the same time teaching and advocating for the principles of universal design in coursework.
Williams: How many students with disabilities attend the University?
Dr Prager: This semester we have 840 students with disabilities served by the Center on Disabilities who have learning, mental health, mobility, communication and visual disabilities. Cal State Northridge is also home to the National Center on Deafness which serves almost 200 students who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
Williams: What makes the University so attractive to students with disabilities?
Dr. Prager: We have a very long history of welcoming students with disabilities and the campus has more than 55 programs that provide services to students with disabilities, engage in research related to disabilities, provide services to community members or prepare the next generation of professionals serving persons with disabilities. Along with the Center on Disabilities and the National Center on Deafness, Cal State Northridge is home to the award winning CHIME charter school which is a fully inclusive school in which children with and without disabilities learn by side using the same curriculum, and to the Center of Achievement which is an incredible facility used by students and community members who want to participate in adaptive physical activity. California State University, Northridge has a long standing commitment to inclusion and it is a welcoming environment for persons with disabilities. And of course our flat terrain, beautiful campus and sunny climate are a big draw!
Williams: Besides the training that takes place at the Annual CSUN AT Conference what other training does the University do in the AT field?
Dr. Prager: We also offer Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Programs across the country several times each year. The ATACP is a hybrid program composed of live training and on line learning for a total of 100 hours which provides 10 CEUs and AAC units. The 4 day “standard” training is either offered by us in locations around the country or hosted by a partner organization such as the upcoming Los Angeles Unified School District session n February. When we partner with a disability or technology-related conference, we provide Fast Trax, our 2 day version of the ATACP.
Williams: Let's switch to another topic. How many people are coming to the Conference 2008 on Technology & Persons with Disabilities March 10-15, 2008 at Los Angeles International Airport?
Dr. Prager: We expect almost 5,000 participants at the 2008 conference. Our attendance has been steadily increasing over the last few years and we have seen the biggest jump in our international participants. In 2007 we welcomed almost 500 international visitors.
Williams: In your opinion, what makes your Annual AT Conference so popular?
Dr. Prager: There are many reasons why our annual conference is so popular. I think our commitment to providing an inclusive environment at the event is an important attraction to our audience. Over the years we have stepped up to the plate and refined every detail of our conference so that anyone and everyone can participate at whatever level they choose. Additionally, I believe, we have so much to offer –our pre-conference workshops truly showcase the experts in the latest research, educational and technological fields dealing with disabilities and we have such a large variety of general sessions covering every disability category that participants can have a complete conference experience no matter what their interest. In addition, our exhibit halls have always been open to the public at no charge which provides many attendees an opportunity to see assistive technology in person and explore the vast variety of AT devices, services and software in one location.
Williams: Can you tell me how many exhibitors will be at the conference?
Dr. Prager: There are 154 companies exhibiting at this year’s conference.
Williams: What are some of the highlights of your conference?
Dr. Prager: We are so proud that Jim Fruchterman who is legendary for his commitment to assistive technology will open the conference as our keynote speaker. We also have a diverse group of experts presenting on a variety of topics. Among them is Ray Kurzweil who is our featured speaker and will speak on “The End of Handicaps.” The Assistive Technology Association (ATA) will celebrate their 20th anniversary at the conference with a gala dinner, silent auction and historical display and it will be great to look back on the accomplishments of so many leaders in the field who have long been affiliated with ATA. I am especially pleased that we have extended our exhibit hours so that we will be open on Saturday until 5:00 p.m. as that will allow school educators, parents, students, allied professionals and anyone who wants to come more convenient hours to attend than was true in the past. And of course, we all look forward to the new products that will be available, and knowledgeable exhibitors who can help participants find solutions to vexing challenges.
Williams: What are some of your future plans for the annual conference?
Dr. Prager: We want to continue to fulfill our commitment to presenting the best speakers in the field, showcasing a diverse group of exhibitors, and providing pre-conference sessions that leave our stakeholders feeling empowered and more knowledgeable. Most importantly we want to continue to provide a venue that allows all of those who come seeking solutions to connect with knowledgeable people either formally in sessions or informally in networking opportunities.
Williams: What was the impetus behind the birth of the conference?
Dr. Prager: Dr. Harry Murphy, who is an iconic figure for those of us who have worked with or for him, began the conference. He understood early on the potential for assistive technology to change the lives of persons with disabilities in significant way and wanted to match those seeking solutions with those providing solutions in an interactive environment. He knew that someone leaving a session in which they were introduced to assistive technology would be very enthusiastic and if they could immediately go try it out, great things could happen. So he conceived of a conference that would provide an incredible amount of hands on experience and opportunities for participants to meet with A.T. vendors and try products out. The beauty of the conference is not just what happens formally but what happens informally when people meet and share information and innovative approaches. Harry also understood the important of reaching out to the global community and actively sought international participation.