Special Education and Disability Policy

Learn more about us in our brochure

Our mission is to make a difference in the lives of children, youth, and adults with disabilities through research, teaching, and service. Our faculty, students, university colleagues, and community partners work together to generate knowledge, investigate effective strategies, disseminate evidence-based practices, advocate for individuals and their families, and promote exemplary programs. Our two affiliated centers, the Partnership for People with Disabilities and the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, provide significant service via local, state, national and international research, technical assistance, personnel development, and advocacy.

Faculty and doctoral students actively engage in research across the lifespan in a wide array of areas. Current research initiatives include: early learning environments for culturally and linguistically diverse children, behavior problem prevention in early childhood, youth violence prevention, self-determination and transition, autism spectrum disorders, adolescent/adult employment and self-sufficiency, impact of disability policy on youth transition, post secondary education for young adults with intellectual disabilities, adults with learning disabilities, and community engagement for personnel preparation.

Our programs prepare doctoral level scholars for faculty and leadership roles, advanced practitioners for current needs, and aspiring educators for early intervention, school age, and transition services. Financial assistance is available for highly qualified students accepted into our programs. Read more below under Funding Our doctoral students have opportunities for expanded development through the Preparing Future Faculty Programand externships in state and national arenas.

Both master’s and doctoral students can take advantage of coursework and field experiences available through Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND).

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The Department is active in preparing highly qualified professionals for teaching at the early childhood, elementary, secondary, and post secondary levels in the field of special education and disability policy. We prepare:
DOCTORAL CANDIDATES designed to prepare researchers who are ready to assume leadership positions at Universities, Research Centers, State Departments of Education, and/or other educational or government institutions. The Doctor of Philosophy program in Special Education and Disability Policy reflects programmatic improvements designed to provide a solid research foundation, a broad perspective for theoretical analysis of research in the field, and structured opportunities to develop expertise in research, teaching, and policy/service.

TEACHERS to work with students having an array of disabilities – from those infants and toddlers who are developmentally delayed to transition aged youth with high or low incidence disabilities.

EDUCATORS , COMMUNITY PROFESSIONALS AND ADVOCATES as they increase their knowledge and skills in working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities.

Doctoral Degree Program

Master’s Degree Programs

Licensure Endorsement Programs

Certificate Programs


Our graduate programs prepare doctoral level scholars for faculty and leadership roles, advanced practitioners for current needs, and aspiring educators for early intervention, school age, and transition services. We offer M.Ed. programs in Early Childhood Special Education, Special Education-Severe Disabilities, and Special Education-General Education. All of our teacher preparation programs have financial support available to support your studies. For the 2015-2014 academic year, we are seeking applications for all programs, with funding available in the following programs:

Early Childhood Special Education Tuition and Stipend
Special Education/Severe Disabilities Tuition for those holding a provisional license
Special Education/General Education Tuition and Stipend for those accepted into the
Richmond Teacher Residency cohort
We also offer reduced tuition rates for the licensure-only program, COVE, which provides coursework needed to earn the Virginia Special Education-General Education license for those holding a conditional or provisional license in the area. Our master’s degree programs are unique and use a range of delivery methods to meet the need for well-trained special educators across Virginia. Our M.Ed. program in Early Childhood Special Education is a hybrid program, the M.Ed. in Special Education-General Education curriculum offers an online option or the unique residency model with Richmond Public Schools, and the M.Ed. program in Special Education-Severe Disabilities is part of a statewide consortium with five other universities in the commonwealth.

The department also offers a PhD program in Special Education and Disability Policy that prepares researchers for leadership positions in universities, research centers, non-profit and government agencies. We are now accepting applications for full- or part-time students; graduate assistantships are available that provide a stipend, tuition support, and an opportunity to work with our outstanding faculty. Our program is also part of the NCII and opportunities exist for graduate assistantships for full-time students interested in research related to students with intensive academic and/or behavior support needs. Learn more here:

In addition to these degree programs, the department also offers certificate programs in Autism Spectrum Disorder (online); Leadership in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities, and Applied Behavior Analysis.

Faculty & Staff



  • Molly Dawes, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Lynn Pelco, Professor, Associate Vice Provost of Community Engagement
  • Carol Schall, Assistant Professor, Director of Technical Assistance for VCU Autism Center for Excellence, Director of Virginia Autism Resource Center
  • Maria Gyure, Project Coordinator, BEST in CLASS
  • Michael West, Director of Research for Rehabilitation Research and Training Center


  • Reggie Brown, Office Services Assistant
  • SEALS II project

    Michelle Huneke

    Best in Class Grant

    Sara Freeman
    Shannon Nemer
    Elvira Barron-Rojas
    Gabriel Jessee
    Chaz Barracks
    Andrea Molzhon

Graduate Teaching Assistants

Heather Coleman
Irina Cain
Kim McKnight
Meredith Moates
Peter Temple
Meera Mehtaji


Department faculty, students, and affiliated centers study a wide range of issues in special education and disability policy. Current faculty research interests and funded programs include:

Dr. Beth Bader: Currently, I continue to examine the impact of federal disability policy on the transition process from secondary educational settings. My most recently published research was conducted for the National Council on Disability in which I worked with colleagues to investigate the Vocational Rehabilitation Act’s impact on students transitioning from secondary education to employment and post-secondary education. In recent years, I have examined the extent to which One-Stop Career Centers, created by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, are serving youth and adults with disabilities. Also, I have been involved in national research on how Social Security work incentives can be used effectively by individuals with disabilities seeking employment, re-employment or increased employment.

Dr. Paul Gerber: My research interests are generally in the field of learning disabilities, but more specifically in the area of adults with learning disabilities, post-school, and life span issues. I have concentrated my research in the area of employment and learning disabilities in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) era. Since developing a model employment success for adults with learning disabilities I have investigated its associated elements such as reframing, self-disclosure and social ecologies. I have used assorted qualitative research methodologies including ethnography and case study methods.

Dr. John Kregel: My research interests focus on employment and economic self-sufficiency for adolescents and adults with disabilities. I am the Principal Investigator of the WIPA National Training Center. I also serve as the Associate Director and Research Director of the VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (VCU-RRTC). I am currently investigating: new approaches to increasing employment retention of individuals with disabilities; return to work services for SSA beneficiaries and veterans with TBI, PTSD, and SCI; employment services and supports for adolescents and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders; and asset development and financial literacy for persons with disabilities. I have testified three times before Congress on issues related to employment and return to work for Social Security beneficiaries.

Dr. Kevin Sutherland: My research focuses upon methods to increase effective instructional practices in classrooms and schools for students with/at-risk for emotional behavioral disorders, intervention fidelity measurement, and intervention development. I am a c0-developer of the BEST in CLASS early intervention program, which we are currently evaluating in a multi-site randomized clinical trial funded by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES). I am also research faculty at the VCU Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development, an Academic Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention funding by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as a co-investigator of an IES Goal 2 Development Project that is developing an intervention model to reduce bullying behavior of all students, including those with disabilities, in middle schools. In those two roles, I work closely with middle schools in order to implement and evaluate evidence-based programs targeting positive youth development.

Dr. Colleen Thoma: My research focuses broadly on the transition from high school to adult life for students with disabilities. I’ve been intrigued with this period of change in a young adult’s life and have focused my research on identifying and developing strategies that address their needs. I’ve tried to examine transition broadly, focusing first on student self-determination in the process, and then expanding to teacher preparation issues and specific strategies and approaches that help students take control of the next phase of their lives. In addition, I have been focusing on developing and validating a framework that teachers can use to address both academic and transition instruction for youth with disabilities. This framework applies a Universal Design for Learning approach to transition education, or Universal Design for Transition. Initial research indicates that this approach increases academic and transition goal achievement while enhancing student engagement in learning. Lastly, my research expanded to investigate the impact of postsecondary transition programs for students with intellectual disability on their long-range transition goals. This is an exciting development in our field and one where research is still needed to guide policy and practice. That’s ultimately my goal: to conduct research that makes a difference for youth with disabilities.

Dr. Yaoying Xu: My research interests involve culturally and linguistically appropriate learning contexts for children from diverse backgrounds, impact of social interactions of young children on their school readiness skills, and strengths-based approach to empowering culturally diverse families of young children with disabilities. My current research projects include a study examining the effects of Adapted Peer Tutoring on social and early literacy skills of young English language learners, another study examining the effects of family literacy intervention on early language and literacy skills of young children from low income families, and a program evaluation investigating the impact of a federally funded Early Reading First project on school readiness skills of children enrolled in Head Start preschool programs.


Ruth Harris Professorship in Dyslexia Studies

From left, former interim dean Michael D. Davis, VCU President Michael Rao, Ruth S. Harris, Professor Paul J. Gerber, and VCU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Beverly J. Warren at the investiture ceremony for Dr. Gerber.

Established in 2007 and endowed in 2010, the Ruth Harris Endowed Professorship in Dyslexia Studies seeks to enhance the work in the field of language learning and reading disabilities, with a focus on dyslexia. It is the first endowed professorship for the VCU School of Education (see article in The Bridge, Spring 2011)

Paul J. Gerber, Ph.D., is the current Ruth Harris Professor of Dyslexia Studies. He is a professor in the Department of Special Education and Disability Policy. The professorship supports his research and work with doctoral students pursuing careers in dyslexia studies, and sponsors an annual lecture by nationally prominent researchers in the area of dyslexia education and related fields.

Ruth S. Harris, M.Ed., is a former educator and noted dyslexia expert. She established with her husband, Dr. Louis S. Harris, a family foundation to support research and training in dyslexia and biomedical sciences. Mrs. Harris served as Academic Coordinator at Riverside School for 13 years and currently serves the school in the capacity of Academic Consultant.

Ruth Harris Dissertation Stipend

Doctoral candidates whose dissertation work is focused specifically in the area of  learning disabilities and/or dyslexia are eligible for a $1,000 stipend. The stipend is awarded in two parts (1) half after passing the dissertation prospectus hearing, and (2) half upon completion of the dissertation. For more information, please inquire to Dr. Gerber.

Nov. 2014

Fifth Annual Ruth Harris Lecture in Dyslexia Studies: “Digging Through Dyslexia”
Ruth Harris guest lecturer, Jack Horner paleontologist, who just happens to also be diagnosed with dyslexia, discusses career success despite learning disability.
“I would say that the advantage my learning disability gives me over virtually all other students is that I can do things differently. I can challenge the status quo,” he said at a small luncheon prior to his evening presentation to the public. “And what I mean by that is, instead of accepting what teachers say, I would challenge everything I was told, whether it was true or not.”

“His style’s very different,” Gerber said. “If you don’t teach one size fits all, then you allow individuals to find their own way in learning and their own way of thinking. That’s where some people who have a gift buried inside a learning disability are able to allow that to blossom, like Jack’s story.”


H. Lee Swanson, Ph.D., holds an endowed chair and the rank of Distinguished Professor in Educational Psychology/Special Education at the University of California at Riverside. His prime research interests are in the area of intelligence, memory and mathematics reading and dynamic assessment as they apply to children with learning disabilities.

Dr. Swanson reviewed some of his meta-analysis work related to answering six questions:
1. Should cognition be added to the definition of learning disabilities?
2. What standard should be set to determine if treatment outcomes are meaningful?
3. Is IQ really irrelevant to treatment outcomes?
4. What are we really getting in terms of outcomes related to Dynamic Testing and Response to Intervention?
5. Is phonological awareness really that important?
6. Are adult dyslexics a lot like kids in processing difficulties?

To view Dr. Swanson’s presentation, CLICK HERE

Anne Ford, author and great-granddaughter of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford, and author/playwright John-Richard Thompson spoke about parenting children with learning disabilities. Ford shared her experiences of parenting a daughter with learning disabilities, from initial diagnosis through guiding her toward an independent future. Despite having a wealthy, well-connected family, it was difficult for Ford to get a reliable assessment of her daughter Allegra’s learning disability in 1970, when she was four years old, and find a supportive learning environment for her.


Candace Cortiella, founder and director of The Advocacy Institute, presented an update on dyslexia and federal education policy. Her institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to the development of products and services that work to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities. CLICK HERE to view the presentation and other materials from her lecture.

British researcher Julie Logan, who studies how dyslexic entrepreneurs succeed in business, presented a lecture titled “Dyslexia, Entrepreneurship and Confidence” (see article in The Bridge, Spring 2012)

Nationally renowned developmental neurologist Peter B. Rosenberger, M.D., delivered a lecture titled “Dyslexia Comes of Age: Diagnosis Makes a Difference.” Dr. Rosenberger is a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology and the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities. His research interests are focused on disorders of language, learning and attention.


The professorship hosted its first lecture in 2011, titled “Mapping the Brain’s Circuits for Reading,” and featured guest speaker F. Xavier Castellanos, M.D., director of research training at the New York University Medical Center. Dr. Castellanos is one of the leading experts on dyslexia through structural and functional brain imaging studies. He also led a workshop with VCU doctoral and advanced graduate students on “Imaging the Brain’s Intrinsic Function Architecture.”

Contact Us

VCU School of Education
Department of Special Education and Disability Policy

PO BOX 842020
Richmond, VA 23284-2020
804.225.3554 fax