The Lurie Institute for Disability Policy

The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University

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Starr Center History and Overview

Since 1967, the Heller School has supported a specialized program in applied research and social policy analysis in the field of mental retardation and related disabilities. In 1985, the Nathan and Toby Starr Center was created to support the program's educational, research, and public engagement activities.

Over the last three decades, the Heller School's commitment to advancing knowledge and social justice for persons with mental retardation and other disabilities has led to more reasoned social policies, greater understanding of the lifelong consequences of disabilities for individuals and their families, and heightened public awareness of the critical role of public policies to ensure necessary supports. As a unique national resource, the Starr Center's active engagement with state and federal commissions, public and private advocacy organizations, and the international community of scholars and activists in the disabilities rights field has demonstrated its dedication to improving the quality of life for individuals with mental retardation and other disabilities within our society.

Mental retardation is a social and health condition of immense magnitude that results from over 300 different causes, both biological and environmental. It directly affects over three million Americans and their families who face the challenge of providing loving care, securing needed services, providing opportunities to be productive, and ensuring a decent quality of life both for themselves and for their family member with retardation. Government-sponsored programs provide a wide range of educational, health, and supportive services, but meeting the daily needs of people with retardation throughout their lives is a daunting challenge for policy-makers, administrators, program directors, families, and, of course, people with mental retardation themselves. Federal, state and local expenditures to support persons with mental retardation exceed $23 billion annually. Increasingly, emphasis is given to opening doors to full community participation for persons with mental retardation, providing expanded opportunities for work, independent living and citizenship. The Starr Center is committed to ensuring that public expenditures are spent effectively and consistently with the needs and aspirations of persons with mental retardation and their families.

Since 1967, the Heller School has sponsored a graduate level educational program and conducted policy-relevant research focused on the needs of persons with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities and their families, and federal, state, and local public policies that serve these populations. More than 100 students have earned a doctoral or masters' degree with a specialization in mental retardation policy research and are now working around the world in leadership positions in universities, government agencies, and in service delivery systems. In 1985, the Nathan and Toby Starr Center was established with a modest endowment. This secured a permanent focus for the Heller School in supporting the education of the next generation of leaders in the disability policy field and underwrote needed research to expand the quality of life for persons with disabilities.

The Center's research activities are focused on the context and consequences of long-term family-based care for persons with mental retardation and the evaluation of social policies that support individuals with mental retardation and their families across the life span. Among its many landmark studies are:

  • The first systematic analysis of the implications for service agencies of the programmatic needs of persons with mental retardation who are elders.
  • The largest study ever conducted of elderly parents with adult children with mental retardation living at home and the need for greater federal and state support for expanded residential options.
  • A long-term study of the effects of early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities on the children's development and the adaptation of their families to the gratifications and challenges of having a member with a disability.
  • A critical analysis of the rise in waiting lists for services for persons with mental retardation and strategies that states can pursue to eliminate these waiting lists.
  • An analysis of the rise of the self-advocacy movement among persons with disabilities and the challenges this movement poses for traditional systems of care.
  • A national study of the issues facing families of children with special health care needs in the health care systems of the U.S.

Faculty and research staff of the Starr Center are leading scholars in the field as well as active in a wide range of state and federal commissions. Public engagement is the hallmark of the Heller School and its faculty, and we work daily to get the message out about contemporary and future policy options that will provide responsive and necessary care for persons with mental retardation and other disabilities across their life span.

There are only a limited number of university-based educational and policy centers in the country that focus on the needs of persons with mental retardation and other disabilities. Continued growth of the Starr Center is critical to our nation's capacity to extend the astounding progress that has been made over the last 30 years in the lives of persons with disabilities - including the development of community-based systems of support, the increased movement of persons with mental retardation into competitive jobs, the availability of a variety of residential options, and the emergence of a self-advocacy movement that will continue to advance the inclusion of persons with mental retardation in all aspects of modern life.


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