2017 Institute Presenters

Christy Ashby headshotChristine Ashby, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Inclusive Education and Disability Studies in the School of Education at Syracuse University. She teaches in the Inclusive Elementary and Special Education Program, Graduate Inclusive Education Programs and Special Education Doctoral Program. She is the Coordinator of the Inclusive Special Education 1-6 and 7-12 Master’s Programs. Additionally, Dr. Ashby is the Director of the ICI (Institute on Communication & Inclusion) and Principal Investigator for the Syracuse Urban Inclusive Teacher (SUITR) Program, a clinically-rich Master’s teacher preparation program in special education. Her teaching and research focuses on inclusive education, with specific emphasis on supports for students with labels of autism and other developmental disabilities, disability studies and inclusive teacher preparation. Dr. Ashby has recent publications in Disability & Society, Teacher Education and Special Education, International Journal of Inclusive Education, Journal of Post-Secondary Education and Disability, Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Handicaps (RPSD) and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Her 2016 book, co-edited with Meghan Cosier, illustrates the ways that disability studies in education can inform the practical work of teaching.

Shannon Brisson headshotShannon Brisson is certified in both Social Studies and Literacy Education. In 2012, the Central New York Council of the Social Studies honored her with the Roger Cipher Beginning Social Studies Teacher Award. She has spent the majority of her nine years in the North Syracuse Central School District co-teaching high school history classes with special education teacher Melissa Venner. In addition, Shannon is her building’s liaison for literacy testing and is enrolled in the AFT Teacher Leaders Program.

Tom Bull headshotTom Bull is currently the Director of Field Relations at the Syracuse University School of Education, and a faculty member in the Inclusive Education program. He formerly served as the Regional Field Facilitator for the S3TAIR Project, a federal grant focused on supporting successful special education programs throughout New York State. Previous to his arrival at SU, Tom taught for 20 years as an inclusive elementary educator in the Liverpool Central School District.  During his time at Long Branch Elementary, as an extension of the inclusive model implemented throughout the school community, Tom created and lead Summer Shenanigans, an award winning, fully inclusive, summer recreation program. 

Torrie Dunlap headshotIn 1998, Torrie Dunlap found her life's purpose when she taught a theater class for children that included a boy with Down syndrome. This is also how she came to know the work of Kids Included Together, a nonprofit where she started as a volunteer and today is the Chief Executive Officer. Kids Included Together (KIT) works all around the globe to help child and youth programs meaningfully include children of all abilities. Torrie has delivered keynotes and trainings on inclusion and participated in panel discussions around the United States and in Canada and Europe. In addition to her speaking engagements, she has been published in textbooks, professional journals and trade magazines. Torrie is a Certified Professional in Learning and Performance and in 2013 was selected as a Social Innovation Fellow at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. In October 2014, she delivered her first Tedx talk and in 2016, she spoke at the United Nations on World Down Syndrome Day. Follow her on Twitter @torriedunlap.

Micah Fialka-Feldman headshotMicah Fialka-Feldman is a student, national speaker, and pioneer who fights for disability-pride, justice, and inclusion. He is part of the first wave of adults with intellectual disabilities attending college and has been fully included in school and community. Micah currently lives in Syracuse N.Y. where he takes classes for his 2015 Certificate in Disability Studies at Syracuse University. He is teaching Assistant at School of Education and works at the Lawrence B.Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education. In May of 2014, Micah was appointed by President Obama to President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.

Elaine Fox headshotElaine Fox, Ph.D. is currently the Executive Director of Student Services for Hillsboro School District in Hillsboro, Oregon. She has been an educator for 24 years in California and Oregon. She started as an Instructional Assistant at a residential treatment center school and has served as a general education elementary and secondary teacher in a large district, a private instructor in Japan, an alternative Program Supervisor, Alternative school Teacher, Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA), Special Education Director, and Executive Director. Dr. Fox received her doctoral degree at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon where she wrote her dissertation entitled, A Phenomenological Study on Parents’ Advocacy Experiences for the Inclusion of Children Experiencing Disability in the General Education Setting. She lives in Beaverton, OR with her twelve year old twins and husband.

Dan Habib headshotDan Habib is the creator of the award-winning documentary films Including Samuel, Who Cares About Kelsey?, Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories, and many other short films on disability-related topics. Habib is a filmmaker at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. He is currently working on a new documentary, with the working title of Intelligent Lives, which will examine our society’s narrow perceptions of intelligence.
Before joining UNH in April of 2008, Habib was the photography editor of the Concord Monitor (NH). In 2006 and 2008, he was named the national Photography Editor of the Year and has been a judge of the Pulitzer Prizes and the Best of Photojournalism. He is a six-time New Hampshire photographer of the year and his freelance work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. In 2014, Habib was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities—a committee that promotes policies and initiatives that support independence and lifelong inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. Habib and his wife, Betsy, live in Concord, New Hampshire with their sons Isaiah, 19, and Samuel, 16.

Jonathan Mooney headshotJonathan Mooney is a writer and learning activist who did not learn to read until he was 12 years old. He is a graduate of Brown University’s class of 2000 and holds an honors degree in English Literature. Jonathan has spent his entire professional career as a social entrepreneur developing organizations, programs, and initiatives to improve the lives of marginalized groups. In 1997, as an undergraduate at Brown University, Jonathan co-founded Project Eye-To-Eye, a non-profit advocacy organization for students with learning differences. As the founding president and Executive Director, Jonathan grew the organization from an undergraduate project conceived in his dorm room into a national organization, which currently has 38 chapters in 20 states working with over 10,000 parents, educators, and students. Jonathan has also worked extensively to create career and college pathways to move low-income youth and adults out of poverty creating the Los Angeles Energy pathway program; The Urban Teacher Fellowship; and the Promo Pathway, an initiative Vice President Al Gore called “a model for moving at-risk youth into the creative economy.”
With the publication of Learning Outside The Lines (now in its 18th printing) when he was 23, Jonathan has established himself as one of the foremost leaders in the neurodiversity and learning revolution. His second book, The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal was published in the spring of 2007 to outstanding reviews in The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and many other national publications. Both books are considered foundational texts in the disability rights movement, the inclusive education movement, and the learning revolution and are used in undergraduate and graduate program at universities and colleges across the country including Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Teachers College, Columbia University.
Jonathan is a highly sought after speaker on neurodiversity, education reform, the learning revolution, and creating college and career pathways for at risk youth. He has lectured in 43 states and three countries.  He has been featured and quoted in/on The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, HBO, NPR, ABC News, New York Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe.

Beth Myers headshotBeth Myers, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education at Syracuse University. She is also the Lawrence B. Taishoff Professor of Inclusive Education in the School of Education, teaching in the Inclusive Elementary and Special Education Program. Beth holds degrees in elementary education, special education, and literacy from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Professor Myers taught in the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania and helped to create a best-practice inclusive program there. She opened a regional center for autism services in 2006 and served as Executive Director before joining the center’s consultation team in 2011. Professor Myers has created dozens of programs with individuals and families, including the Advancement Square group for adults with developmental disabilities, The Teen Project for adolescents, the Awesome Summer Days inclusive camp program for school-age children, and the SAIL Supported Adult Independent Living program. Beth holds a dual appointment with the Kelberman Center for Autism Services as Director of Special Projects. She has provided school consultations for students with autism and staff development to over 50 school districts. Additionally, Professor Myers has been the faculty liaison to the Syracuse City School District for the SUITR Program, a Masters Residency program in urban special education. Myers has conducted research to study the autobiographical works of adolescents with autism, which won the 2012 Ralph C. Preston Award for Scholarship and Teaching Contributing to Social Justice and Educational Equity. In 2015, Myers was awarded a $2 million grant from the US Department of Education to support the InclusiveU initiative at Syracuse University.

Jon Pede headshotJon Pede, Ph.D. is currently the Principal of Poynter Middle School in Hillsboro, Oregon. He has been in education for 27 years starting as an Instructional Assistant in a “self-contained” special education classroom, a Specialized Program Teacher, Resource Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal (elementary and middle in California and Oregon), Director of Student Services and in the past two years returned to a Principal position after completing his dissertation on the school principalship. Dr. Pede received his doctoral degree at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon where he wrote his dissertation entitled, “Morals, values, and ethics: Their impact on the decisions of the school principal.”

Jen Rufo headshotJenna Mancini Rufo, Ph.D. serves as the Director of Special Education and Student Services for North Penn School District, a school system outside of Philadelphia with roughly 13,000 students, where she has worked since 2008. Jenna began her teaching career as an Inclusion Facilitator for Newton Public Schools in Massachusetts where she was responsible for coordinating services in the general education setting for students with significant disabilities. Jenna was also employed as a Special Education Planning and Policy Specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Education before returning to Pennsylvania where she helped establish the first in-district program for students with autism in Colonial School District.
Jenna earned her Special Education and Elementary Education degrees from Cabrini University, and attained her masters in Educational Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from Harvard University. She completed her doctoral program in Educational Leadership at Immaculata University where her dissertation focused on the relationship between teacher self-efficacy and special education referrals. Jenna was inspired to enter the field of special education by one of her siblings who has severe and multiple disabilities. She views special education as her calling, and is passionate about providing a quality education to all students.

Betsy Smith headshotSelected by Exceptional Parent magazine in 2000 as a role model for the next 20 years, Betsy Smith has proven to be one to watch. As one of the first students with Down syndrome to be included in general education in NJ, Betsy’s story of success includes graduating from Montclair High School in 1997 as a member of the National Honor Society, and attending classes at Montclair State University. Today she maintains her own apartment and for 20 years has worked at the Montclair YMCA. As a passionate advocate of inclusion, Ms. Smith has delivered keynote addresses & participated on panels across the nation. Betsy has served on the board of the NJ Council on Developmental Disabilities & currently serves on the NJ Coalition for Inclusive Education. Betsy is also a prior board member of the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center and President Clinton’s Committee on Developmental Disabilities.

Jennifer Sommerness headshotJennifer Sommerness, Ed.S., is currently an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, where she teaches graduate level methods and foundation classes, within the Teacher Education and Special Education Department. She is also an educational consultant for her own private business, Welcome Spoken Here, serving in over 30 districts nation-wide this past year alone. With her extensive background in inclusive education practices, educational administration, teacher leadership and staff development, she works with school teams and families to create collaborative school systems and engaging school cultures for all learners. She is the author or co-author of many products including: soon to be published What Success Looks Like: Navigating Systems to Create and Support Inclusive Communities; Supporting Students with Disabilities in Inclusive Schools: A Curriculum for Job-Embedded Paraprofessional Development; and Teachers as Leaders of Inclusive Schooling: What, Why and How. She received her doctoral degree in Educational Administration from the University of Minnesota, focusing on the areas of inclusive education, systems change, teacher leadership, staff development and reflective practice to improve schools.

Melissa Venner headshotMelissa Venner  is New York State certified in both Social Studies and Students with Disabilities. For almost a decade she has been co-teaching Global History and U.S. History at Cicero-North Syracuse High School. In 2011, she was awarded a trip to Germany with the Goethe-Institute'sTransatlantic Outreach Program. Melissa is also enrolled in the AFT Teacher Leaders Program and is a member of her district's professional development committee. When she is not busy with her work, Melissa is spending time with her adorable children.