Educating Social Workers on Best Practices
An International Conference with 3,000 Attending
Joel M. Levy, DSW, Co-Chief Executive Officer of the YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities Network
Thirty years ago, the field of developmental and learning disabilities was just developing from an institutional-based model to a community-based model. There were no books or training materials on how to open a residence or create a day program. There was no Internet and the advent of VCRs and use of public access television was just beginning. There was no easy way to transfer knowledge and so, as Executive Director of the YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities Network (YAI/NIPD), I began to look at different ways to share it.
Conferences in the field were emerging, but they were geared primarily toward academics. The vision was to bring the talent here to New York City and to share the knowledge. In the early years, people questioned how YAI – a small, struggling agency – could be hosting an international conference, bringing together professionals, thought leaders, parents and individuals with disabilities. People criticized the effort saying, “I can’t believe you’re doing this.” and “Who are you to be doing this?” Our response was that somebody has got to do this – it has to be done. With determination, the First Annual International YAI/NIPD Network Conference was born.
At a time when workers in the field were not regarded as professionals, it was important to educate workers in the field by exposing them to the most up-to-date training and best practices. YAI was a provider; we were bridging the theory and the practice, therefore, people could take information from our conference back to their organizations and implement it in their programs. We were identifying the gaps in services and in service delivery – the unmet needs. Back then, people would only raise the issues of problems facing people with disabilities and this emerging field. By focusing on empowerment – empowering parents, empowering staff and empowering persons with developmental and learning disabilities – YAI was offering models and solutions through our conferences.
The YAI/NIPD Network Conference began as a two-day event; the first conference was held at Adelphi University’s School of Social Work and hosted 175 attendees. In its early years, many of the topics reflected the transition of individuals with intellectual disabilities from institutions to community settings. The conference focused on providing attendees with information on how to build the infrastructure that would enable persons with intellectual disabilities to lead dignified lives in the community. Today the YAI/NIPD Network Conference spans a full week and attracts an audience of over 3,000 professionals, parents, and persons with disabilities who come from all over the world. The conference features approximately 200 seminars and workshops.
Although the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities to live in the community have been largely accepted, many challenges remain. Today, the conference focuses on issues such as promoting greater employment opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, meeting the challenge of aging and the need for additional services, creating greater public awareness and erasing stigmas, coping strategies for families, counseling issues, ethical issues and numerous other topics. Over the years, the conference focused on a key theme, with different tracks for direct service professionals, families, persons with disabilities, management and leadership. In addition to prominent experts in the field, legislative leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Governor Mario Cuomo, have been brought in to speak about issues and to promote public education. The themes were really part of our advocacy to address questions like “What are the needs of persons with disabilities?” and “What will their needs be in the future?” Hence, the conference became a vehicle for building valuable partnerships with government officials over the years, as well for introducing these critical issues into the field.
When I reflect on what has made me most proud, I must say that it was great to set the stage and change things that helped better people’s lives. We were persuading parents that their children could be productive, could live in the community. These were concepts that, at that time, were unheard of. As for the future of YAI’s conferences, the use of the internet, distance learning, webcasts and teleconferences will be essential to provide training and knowledge to more people. Our greatest challenge is finding new ways to support persons with disabilities by using technology.
Finally, we are proud that over the years, the YAI/NIPD Network Conference has been co-sponsored by NASW-NYC, as well as by some of the nation’s most prestigious schools of social work. We look forward to many more years of engaging social work professionals in the process of continuing education, and to influencing the directions in which the field is moving and ways in which it is growing.
(Editor’s Note: After four decades with YAI, Dr. Levy is retiring from the organization effective July 1, 2009.)