Students with disabilities often need a champion beyond their immediate family in the academic setting—that’s where Seattle University’s Special Education program comes in. The program is devoted to developing leaders and advocates in the field who are dedicated to supporting students with learning, behavioral, and physical disabilities in receiving the education they deserve. Future educators, counselors, and administrators engage in a diverse curriculum, learning alongside one another to foster relationships and create better bonds across disciplines.

Program Director Dr. Cinda Johnson, EdD, aims to prepare students to ethically and knowledgeably serve diverse communities through their work as special educators. Under Dr. Johnson, students learn the legal aspects of disability, impacts of disability on learning differences, and research-based learning processes—all within the context of socio-economic, cultural, and linguistic diversities. Nationally recognized for her work in the study of transitions from high school to post-high for young people with disabilities, Dr. Johnson’s personal experience fuels her passion for guiding the next generation of special education professionals.

How is your program unique, and how does social justice apply?

Our students are committed to the mission of Seattle University. Our students are so thoughtful, and they come here because they want to make a change in the world.

When you come out of our program, you are prepared to teach students with a variety of disabilities. You’re prepared to teach students in all kinds of settings; inclusivity is our goal. You are in classes with your future colleagues—school psychologists and school counselors—and you get to know what their jobs involve so that when you’re in the school doing the work, it’s easier to build relationships.

I have a particular passion for secondary special education, so all of my students, even if they’re going to teach first grade, are thinking, “OK, what am I going to do this year in first grade that’s going to influence this student when they leave our school system? What am I adding to their repertoire of skills and self-advocacy?”

What brought you to Seattle University?

Honestly—and I don’t say this lightly—it was the mission for social justice. The mission fits with my beliefs, my work, and my advocacy and passion for people with disabilities and people who are underserved in mental health.

How did it personally speak to you?

I think from the time I was very young, I noticed a difference in schools and in my classroom for students like myself—reading came easily to me, school came easily to me, my parents supported us in school—versus students in my classrooms who had disabilities, didn’t speak English, or English wasn’t spoken at home. I always wanted to make a difference for those students who, because of the luck of the draw, were challenged by school without additional supports. I was always in that world of special education and disability.

In my own personal life, my younger daughter was a college freshman when she became very ill and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. We wrote a book together entitled Perfect Chaos: a Daughter’s Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother’s Struggle to Save Her (published in 2012) and we’ve traveled all over the country for speaking engagements, trainings, and talking about the book. Once again, it pushed me into a place where I realized how privileged and lucky I am to have the resources I have, but even with all those resources, how difficult it is—particularly in the mental health world—to find services and support. I am grateful to work where people supported me in that journey.

How does that experience influence the work you do?

I hope I teach my students the skills to do honest and authentic work with their students to increase their academic skills, their social skills, and their self-determination skills. I also hope that, in some ways, I inspire them with my own authenticity and openness about the struggles we all have, but also very clearly let them know that this comes from a place of privilege. Those of us with privilege have responsibility. That’s been stuck in my head for years.

Click here for more information about Seattle University’s College of Education.