A Brief History of the Virgin Islands University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VIUCEDD)
The VIUCEDD works in conjunction with its’ DD network partners to support people with disabilities. DD network partners include The Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands (DRCVI) and the Virgin Islands Developmental Disability Agency (VIDDC).
The Virgin Islands University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VIUCEDD) opened its doors in July 1994. It all started when Dr. Yegin Habtes, the first Executive Director, submitted a grant proposal on behalf of the University of the Virgin Islands to start a new program under the name of The Virgin Islands University Affiliated Program (VIUAP). The grant was written in consultation and with the cooperation of U.S. Virgin Islands Departments of Education, Health, and Human Services, and other non-governmental organizations. It was submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Developmental Disabilities. The above-mentioned governmental and non-governmental organizations agreed on the need to establish such a program and endorsed the proposal to establish a multicultural Virgin Islands University Affiliated Program at our historically black university to serve people with disabilities.
Since then, the Virgin Islands University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VIUCEDD), authorized by the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000, has been making a difference for people with developmental disabilities, their families, and the community. VIUCEDD’s mission is to enhance the quality of life for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families through increased consumer control and meaningful choices, enhanced productivity, and full inclusion into community life to make the Virgin Islands a place in which all citizens with disabilities participate fully.
To achieve its mission and vision, VIUCEDD had a historical focus on activities in the following key areas:
- Interdisciplinary Training
- Community Outreach/Technical Assistance
- Advocacy and Dissemination
Consumer Advisory Council
As required by the Developmental Disabilities Act of 2000, the first step was to create a Consumer Advisory Council (CAC) to advise and lead the center. A 16-body membership group of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and interests were selected. VIUCEDD boasts robust and active CAC members that includes seven (44%) individuals with developmental and other disabilities, five (31%) who are family members of individuals with developmental disabilities, and the remaining four (25%) representing the State Office of Special Education, the Disability Rights Center, the Department of Human Services, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Virgin Islands Association for Independent Living. The CAC’s membership reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the Virgin Islands population and includes Black, Hispanic/Latino, White, and other ethnic groups.
The following paragraphs provide an overview of the VIUCEDD activities and accomplishments for the first two decades and half.
An important part of the VIUCEDD mission was and will always remain to advocate on behalf of people with developmental disabilities and to help them reach their hopes and dreams. VIUCEDD staff will engage in both formal and informal forms of advocacy to reduce attitudinal and bureaucratic barriers that discriminate against persons with disabilities. In particular, VIUCEDD staff serves as advocates for inclusive educational opportunities, access to generic services, and greater access to vocational and residential opportunities. VIUCEDD believes that the necessary support should be available to ensure that artificial barriers to access are eliminated.
Interdisciplinary Training (Preservice)
One of the central priorities of the VIUAP is the development of interdisciplinary courses and programs that are tailored to professionals, para-professionals, parents, custodians, and consumers. During the last two and a half decades, the following activities have occurred:
Inclusive Early Childhood Education
VIUCEDD has initiated the Inclusive Early Childhood Education Program (IECEP), which began as a Certificate program and evolved into Associate and Baccalaureate Degree programs. These programs focus on child care and the development of all children, establishing developmentally and individually appropriate programs and the inclusion of children with disabilities in regular childcare/Head Start/preschool settings. The Virgin Islands Department of Human Services through the Child Care Development Fund and Head Start Programs provided scholarships for most of the students enrolled.
In addition to the Inclusive Early Childhood Education program, VIUCEDD supports the development of paraprofessionals in the Virgin Islands. The Para- Educator Certificate Program was made up of eighteen undergraduate credits, which was designed in collaboration with the Department of Education to train paraprofessionals to assist general education and special education teachers in providing appropriate educational programs in inclusionary school settings for children with disabilities. The Department of Education Division of Special Education provided scholarships for those enrolled in the program. About twenty students have already completed the certificate program.
Our program also lent itself to helping those who are hearing impaired in the Virgin Islands community by offering American Sign Language Interpreters training (ASL) at the Associate Degree Program. It is designed to train individuals in American Sign Language who in turn will be able to communicate with individuals who are hearing impaired. It is very gratifying to see some of our trainees interpreting in the community.
VIUCEDD’s pride and joy is its School Psychology Education Specialist degree program at the University of the Virgin Islands. This program was especially created for working Virgin Islanders who were already in the field working as teachers, administrators, psychologists, and therapists. It is designed to cover the full range of content and skills in such professional school psychology areas as assessment, intervention, research, evaluation, consultation, and professional development. The program consists of sixty-seven graduate semester hours divided into three major parts: academic course work, which includes 55 credits of professional training; practicum, which includes 6 credits of supervised field experiences in specific skilled areas that correspond with courses; and a supervised internship, which consists of 6 credits and a minimum of 1200 hours of supervised field experiences that cover the range of school psychological services. This program was fully funded by the VI Department of Education, State Office of Special Education, and graduated fifteen students, which were hired by the VI Department of Education. All these programs stated above are in the UVI books and can be resurrected whenever needed.
One of the major commitments of the VIUCEDD is to promote assistive technology initiatives that will enhance the quality of life for individuals with disabilities in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Since its inception, the VIUCEDD has been active in the exploration and applications of innovative assistive technology devices and services. These explorations and applications have been carried out through our two Assistive Technology Centers located in the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix. Through these centers, we were able to introduce assistive technology devices and services to the people of the Virgin Islands. Additionally, VIUCEDD was instrumental in creating an Assistive Technology Foundation Inc. (VITAF). The VIATF loan program, in collaboration with Banco Popular in the Virgin Islands, offers people with disabilities access to low-interest bank loans to purchase Assistive Technology (AT) devices and services.
Dissemination of Information
The VIUCEDD continually disseminates information, which promotes the quality of life for persons with disabilities. One of these journals is called Harambee, which means "Let’s Pull Together” in the Swahili language. Harambee is published quarterly and designed to reach people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, service providers, and other professionals who work with people with disabilities. Another publication that comes out now and then is entitled Tech Connect. It is published by the Assistive Technology Research Centers that provides information and sensitizes the public to specific types of disabilities, points them towards organizations, and lists assistive technology devices to facilitate the abilities.
In conclusion, it is very important to mention the yearly conferences that VIUCEDD holds. “Voices that Count” is held every October to bring people with disabilities, policy makers, and enforcers face to face to discuss how they could make life better for all of us. The other conference that takes place every year in April is the “Autism Conference”. Beyond these annual conferences, whenever it is needed, VIUCEDD conducts workshops on assistive technology, inclusion, partners in policy-making and positive behavior services. The Virgin Islands Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at the University of the Virgin Islands has indeed ushered a new era--the era of inclusion. It is with pride and joy that I graciously thank those who assisted us in building such a successful program, those who attended our programs, and those who worked hard for members of this community to participate.
Best Wishes for Continued Success,
Yegin Habtes, Ph.D.
Emeritus Professor of Education &
Emeritus Senior Executive Director, VIUCEDD