Our History

The history of the Institute for Disability Research, Policy, & Practice (IDRPP) is rich and layered, covering decades of changes in disability policy, service delivery, and attitudes. We stand on the shoulders of giants in the field, notably our first director, Dr. Marvin Fifield. Dr. Fifield’s involvement with what was originally called the Exceptional Child Center began when it was just a concept without a home, and he helped grow it into a dynamic, flourishing institution. Below is a brief history of the early years of the Institute, written by Dr. Fifeld. The video below was produced in 2007, and features Dr. Fifield as well as Dr. Sarah Rule, second director, discussing the evolution of the then Center for Persons with Disabilities.

Establishing the Center for Persons with Disabilities


The Center for Persons with Disabilities [now the Institute for Disability Research, Policy, & Practice] became a reality through a two part process: first, building construction and second, program development.

The building started with a grant submitted by USU to the federal government and approved in February of 1968. After many delays and complications, construction was started in the spring of 1970, and the building was occupied in the Fall of 1972. The construction grant was approved by the Division of Mental Retardation, which was under P.L. 88-164 was authorized to use Hill-Burton monies (federal hospital construction monies) to build facilities on university campuses to provide research, training, and services for individuals with mental retardation – University Affiliated Facilities (UAFs). The Center for Persons with Disabilities was the last UAF constructed under this authorization. The application for the facility was unique in a number of others ways, as well:

  1. Of the 21 facilities constructed, the CPD was the smallest.
  2. It was the first center approved in a rural area.
  3. It was not attached to a medical school.
  4. It was located in a region proposed to provide services to the rural areas of four states – Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Nevada.

The Division of Mental Retardation’s approval of the facility did not provide any program support. It was understood at the onset that the University was responsible to find funding for training, services, research, etc., wherever they could find it. At Utah State University, this was initiated in 1968 with the hiring of Dr. Joseph Kesler as a part-time Medical Director and Dr. Devoe Rickert as Educational Director. Their assignment was to seek funding from state, federal, and local sources for service programs that would be located in the facility when it was completed. The first program component was funded by the Utah Department of Health which approved the “Northern Utah Diagnostic Unit” which provided a small clinical and technical assistance program to assist in the assessment and screening of children with suspected disabilities in the counties of Cache, Duchesne, and Rich. In 1969, contracts were negotiated with the Logan and Cache School Districts for the CPD to operate the Cache Training Center. This was the only program in the Valley for children and youth who were deemed to be educably retarded. These classrooms became the CPD’s Educational Unit and originally consisted of three classrooms located at the Whittier School on the Boulevard in Logan. The planning and development of the CPD was assigned to staff and faculty in the Department of Special Education in the College of Education at USU. In July of 1969, the Department of Special Education and the clinical program of the CPD was provided space in Richards Hall on the USU campus while the building was under construction.

Building Spaces and Programs

In February of 1972, the Utah State Legislature allocated $50,000 in operating costs for the CPD. The Center became a reality once the building was occupied with the programs that had been started elsewhere relocating in the new facility.

In July of 1972, Dr. Marvin Fifield was appointed as Director of the CPD with Dr. Glendon Casto as Associate Director, Dr. Ron Thorkildsen as Business Administrator, Dr. Devoe Rickert as Educational Director, Dr. Alan Hofmeister as Research and Evaluation Director, and Dr. Joseph Kesler as Medical Director. The Northern Utah Diagnostic Unit was moved into the Center, and screening and testing services were increased for children referred throughout the four-state region, but mainly from Cache Valley and adjacent counties. Three demonstration classrooms for children with disabilities and one for children with hearing loss were located in the facility. In addition, the Special Education Instructional Materials Center and the Instructional Technology Project were moved from the Department of Special Education into the CPD building.

Due to construction cost overrides, most of the money designated for equipment and furniture in the new CPD was depleted. Needed office and classroom equipment was obtained from surplus properties on campus and from Hill Air Force Base. Classroom desks and chairs were provided by the Cache School District. Surplus desks, file cabinets, chairs, etc. can still be found 30 years later in some of the CPD offices.

The building was dedicated in September of 1973 with Dr. Cecil Jacobsen, a member of the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation, giving the dedicatory lecture. Other members of the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation and directors of several other University Centers attended the dedication of the facility.

Growing our Programs

In 1974, the State Legislature allocated additional funding for the Center to expand services. Dr. Thain was hired as Medical Director, Dr. Latham as Director of the Division of Evaluation, Dr. John McLaughlin as Education and Training Director, and Dr. Seb Striefel as the Director of Clinical Services. Two years later, the State Legislature provided funding for the Cooperative Extension Program to assist families of children with disabilities in rural areas. Dr. Latham took this program, combined it with the Instructional Materials Center, and developed the Parent Resource Library. A service component to this continued at the CPD.

The commitment to serve the rural states of Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah was a daunting task, and when legislation made it possible to establish satellite centers in other states, the CPD applied jointly with other states to conduct feasibility studies and to prepare and submit grant proposals for new centers. The first three satellite centers were established in Montana, South Dakota, and on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Later, the CPD faculty provided technical assistance in establishing these centers as well as the North Dakota Center at Minot, the Arizona Center at Flagstaff, the Wyoming Center at Laramie, and the Arkansas Center at Little Rock. Technical assistance was also provided in a number of other states as they developed their own University Centers of Excellence.

In 1980, Dr. Glenn Latham led a team of grant writers that prepared, submitted, and negotiated a federal contract for the Mountain Plains Regional Resource Center. The Regional Resource Center, funded by the U.S. Office of Education, became the first of the ongoing federally supported centers at the CPD. The RRC became the Technical Assistance Division of the CPD and has continued for the past 19 years resubmitting competitive grant applications every three to five years to continue this program.

In 1982, Dr. Casto and Dr. White submitted and negotiated a contract to establish the Early Childhood Research Institute (EIRI). This became the second ongoing federally funded unit at the CPD. EIRI has since pursued its own research line and demonstration programs for many years.

Stepping Up with Technology

The utilization of new technology to assist in meeting the needs of people with disabilities was planned as a schematic focus of the CPD initially. Dr. Ron Thorkildsen and others explored the utilization of computers in testing, monitoring instructional programs, as well as in drill and practice, and learning tasks. Linking audiovisual and information technology with computers led to the establishment of a Video Services program and prepared faculty members to move to the forefront in distance learning techniques utilizing satellites, cable, and phone lines. A variety of programs and projects have been successfully pursued to train students, professional staff, parents, and children with disabilities through distance learning channels. With this experience, it was appropriate for the CPD to apply and obtain the Assistive Technology Program for Utah.

In 1990, the application for the Utah Assistive Technology Program submitted by Dr. Fifield and Dr. Thorkildsen was approved. This program served as a vehicle by which many other federal grants and projects have been pursued, including training of people in utilization of assistive technology, establishing the Assistive Technology Laboratory on campus, as well as establishing the Utah Center for Assistive Technology in Salt Lake City. The Utah Assistive Technology Loan Program and the Foundation have been programmatic thrusts for the Center for many years.

Reaching Out

The CPD has also pursued a programmatic emphasis in addressing the needs of Native Americans. In 1972-73, a small project on the Navajo Reservation at Nazileni, Arizona, was initiated to train local Navajo women as teacher aides. Contracts were negotiated with the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City for clinical and technical assistance services in 1972-73. From these contacts, the CPD was asked to serve as the host to conduct the feasibility study that led to establishing a University Affiliated Program on the Navajo reservation. This center operated for seven years with the CPD providing technical assistance and additional staff to conduct a variety of training, service, and evaluation programs for the Navajo and Hopi tribes.

In 1991, the CPD applied and was awarded the Indian Children’s Program designed to provide clinical and technical assistance to the Navajo, Hopi, and Northern Ute tribes in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. The CPD teamed up with the University of New Mexico and the Northern Arizona University as a consortium to provide this service. This program has continued for the past 14 years.

Continuing to Teach and Serve

The Educational Unit of the CPD was established in 1969 at the Whittier School in Logan Three classrooms were relocated in the CPD facility in 1972, along with a special unit for children with hearing loss. Contracts were negotiated with the Logan, Cache, and Box Elder School Districts to serve other children with mild and severe disabilities. For the next five years, these programs grew to the point that there were six classrooms at the CPD, and additional classrooms or satellite classrooms in local school buildings, all operated by the CPD.

Responding to the mandate of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), several federal grants were pursued to help the CPD provide technical assistance, staffing support, and training necessary to move school age and preschool children back into their neighborhood schools.

The Clinical Services Program established in 1968 has grown and expanded in a variety of ways to help the school districts in Utah and Idaho identify children in need of services and provide faculty inservice training. Currently, the only children attending classrooms in the CPD facility are those enrolled in early intervention programs which are designed to integrate early intervention services for children with disabilities with children without disabilities.

Sharing Expertise

Faculty and staff of the Center for Persons with Disabilities have played an important role in establishing new University Centers of Excellence in other states. The CPD served as the “host” Center in conducting the planning grants and feasibility studies that preceded the federal approval of University Centers of Excellence in seven states. In 1976, the CPD served as the “host” Center, assisting the feasibility study and developing grant applications submitted by Montana, South Dakota, and the Navajo Nation. These three programs became operational the following year. Later, the Arkansas, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Arizona Centers were hosted by the CPD faculty and became operational University Centers for Excellence in their respective states.

As the network of University Centers for Excellence has expanded from 19 in 1970 to 65 today (one or more center in every state), the CPD has also served as a training site for directors and key faculty positions in these new University Centers. Seven different University Centers were directed or had key program personnel who trained either as students or as staff at the CPD.

A Great Return on the Investment

Looking back on the past 30 years of programs and activities of the CPD, one must conclude that the small investment in construction funds, state matching funds, and federal grants and contracts provided to the CPD has been well invested. The services and benefits spoken of and envisioned by the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation back in 1963 have been appropriately realized.