The Institute for Community Inclusion Mourns the Loss of Valued Staff Member Debra Hart

Community Inclusion
3 min readDec 14, 2023
Debra Hart, a white woman with long grey hair and glasses, smiles at the camera from a podium in front of a “Think Higher. Think College.” background.
Debra Hart smiling at a podium in front of a “Think Higher. Think College.” background.

With great sadness, we share with you the news that Debra Hart passed away unexpectedly on Tuesday, December 12.

Throughout her career, Debra was passionate about the full inclusion of people with disabilities in their community. She led the development of postsecondary education options for students with intellectual disability (ID) when many others could not envision such an approach. She was a relentless advocate for inclusion; she firmly believed that, given the right opportunities and supports, anyone who wanted to go to college could succeed. Debra’s legacy includes much more than the many postsecondary education opportunities for students with ID that have developed across this country. Her legacy is also apparent in the striking number of leaders who have emerged in the field, and, most importantly, in the people who have had new opportunities because of the work she championed.

“I’ve had the honor of working alongside Debra at the ICI beginning with her early work in the area of transition. Debra was committed to seeing that young people with ID had the services and supports for a meaningful adult life. Her transition work evolved as she saw inclusive postsecondary education as a pathway to employment, social and emotional development, and independent living for young people with ID. Her impact both in Massachusetts and nationally are unparalleled. She was always dedicated to this work, even when others in the disability field did not share her passion or see her vision. The progress that has been made in this field is a testament to her work, as is the team she helped to develop at ICI and the many relationships and partnerships she developed along the way,” said Cindy Thomas, director of the ICI.

Debra began working at the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) in 1989, where she led ICI’s Education and Transition team. Over the course of her career, Debra’s work addressed a range of disability issues from inclusive recreation, technology and innovation, and transition and postsecondary education. In the early 2000s, Debra spearheaded the inception of the Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment (MAICEI) program. Debra was influential in the creation of Think College, a national center that provides resources, technical assistance, and training related to college options for students with ID. Her visionary leadership transformed the educational landscape by providing inclusive opportunities for students with ID to access higher education.

Debra’s leadership helped lay the foundation for one of the most significant benchmarks of progress in the field of inclusive postsecondary education: the establishment of program accreditation standards. Over the past decade, she collaborated with other national leaders to draft accreditation standards, create an accreditation process, and most recently, to establish the first and only accrediting agency for postsecondary education programs for students with ID. Debra was passionate about this work and knew the long-term implications of accreditation would set quality standards for the next generation of college students with ID.

Debra was also very proud of the work of Think College Policy Advocates, a program offering training to teams of college students with ID and college program staff on disability policy and advocacy. Supporting these individuals to use their voice to speak about important policy issues with their representatives in Washington DC was meaningful to Debra. She spoke about this experience often with colleagues across the country.

“Debra was at the center of the Think College team, and her passion and vision for our mission never wavered. She had a gift for bringing folks together and she led the way in making progress in the field of inclusive postsecondary education. For those of us who were lucky enough to call her a friend — and there are many — she gave us each many other gifts: her fierce loyalty, her love for travel and good food, her true compassion and concern for our lives and our families, including (or maybe, especially) our dogs. She had a tender heart, and you were lucky when she shared it with you,” said Meg Grigal, her long-time friend and co-director at Think College.

The ICI extends our sincerest sympathies and condolences to Debra’s family, friends, her colleagues across the country, and ICI staff. We mourn the loss of a leader, a colleague, and a friend.

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Community Inclusion

The Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities in school, work, health care and community activities.