Exterior of the MIDB building.

The Institute on Community Integration has begun its move to the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain (MIDB), ushering in a new era of collaboration across the University of Minnesota designed to advance brain health in support of each person’s journey as a valued community member throughout their lives. 

ICI, which brings more than 35 years of disability research, advocacy, and education/training, joins researchers, clinicians, and specialists from the University’s Medical School, M Health Fairview, and the College of Education and Human Development at the new 116,000-square-foot building, 2025 East River Parkway, Minneapolis. 

“As an organization, we actually outgrew our space in Pattee Hall in the early 1990s, and the opportunity to now have fully accessible space that encourages collaboration with colleagues and that lets us welcome community partners is the culmination of our collective work over decades to make life better for people with disabilities through our research and its influence on changing policy and practice,” said Amy Hewitt, director of ICI.

Named in recognition of a gift from Minnesota Masonic Charities, MIDB officially opens Nov. 1, offering collaborative interdisciplinary research, early neurobehavioral and mental health assessment, innovative targeted interventions, informed policy-making, compassionate advocacy, and community engagement and education. 

“Learning about the different ways our colleagues think, and the context they bring to their work, will help us break down barriers and make our work more relevant to the community,” said Damian Fair, University of Minnesota Medical School Redleaf Endowed Co-Director, MIDB. “Once we begin digging into how we approach care for people with disabilities, we see some of the old labels pitting the medical and social models against each other are not accurate and that both approaches have already been coming together. The hope is that by breaking down walls and creating safe spaces to talk about different approaches, we’ll improve all of the ways we work for families navigating the critical issue of brain health.”

While ICI and the other occupants of the MIDB building will retain their existing names, organizational structures, and research interests, their proximity in the space is designed to foster new collaborations, share resources, and spur new research and service delivery approaches.

“Access is a hallmark of equity and inclusion, not only regarding access to space, but to resources, opportunities, information, and discoveries,” said Michael Rodriguez, CEHD dean. “ICI has long led the way in creating access, and through enhancing collaborations with the Medical School, we will expand that legacy with new energy in MIDB.”

MIDB will be composed of several independent research cores, including TeleOutreach, that will provide support and expertise in neurodevelopmental research, integrated data collection, and analytical and intervention services under one roof. 

One collaboration already underway is the MIDB TeleOutreach Center, directed by ICI’s Jessica Simacek and Adele Dimian, associate director. The center was created under a philanthropic gift from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, providing research, training, and technical assistance through innovative and secure technology to address barriers to care for children, youth, families, and professionals. Under a new $600,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, researchers from ICI and the Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics will conduct a large-scale, randomized control trial assessing intervention and diagnostic services delivered via the TeleOutreach Center to families awaiting formal autism spectrum disorder evaluation or intervention.

“The TeleOutreach Center is one of the early, exciting collaborations within MIDB,” said Simacek. “The physical space and technology are scaled up from what we have previously used to do this type of work, and it is already allowing us to welcome more trainees, fellows, students, community collaborators, and, ultimately, families, to be connected and engaged, regardless of where they are located.”

ICI’s Minnesota Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (MNLEND) Program is another existing ICI program that already has fostered deep connections across more than 16 academic disciplines at the University, Hewitt said. Each academic year, a cohort of MNLEND fellows comes together under funding from the U.S. Maternal & Child Health Bureau to develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes to make informed, committed action in the areas of neurodevelopmental and related disabilities. 

Looking forward, Hewitt said, advances in the fields of both medical and social policy are critical to understand together.

“In the past we made assumptions about how clinicians, physicians, and bench scientists think and act, but we don’t really know,” said Hewitt. “They have the same ultimate goal we do, which is that we want people with disabilities to have good lives. Today’s clinical advances in holistic medicine are just one example of a whole new way of looking at our work. And if we don’t really know what’s going on at the clinical level, we can’t change policies and practices.”

Jennifer Hall-Lande, who leads ICI’s work in autism prevalence data and early intervention, serves on the MIDB executive council, along with Hewitt.

“I’ve been waiting my entire career for an opportunity like this to leverage the strengths of the social model of disability with the clinical side,” she said. “Disability is a natural part of the human continuum, and I bring that perspective to my clinical work. It’s up to us to take this opportunity and learn from each other and grow and innovate.”

Future collaborations leveraging the diverse expertise that will inhabit MIDB are still to be created, both Hewitt and Fair said.

“What struck me as we toured the building was how a family coming through the clinic door could potentially encounter our TIES resources for parents of a child with a more significant disability, and they may want to begin a path towards educating their child in a more inclusive setting in their local school, or have started on that path and need help,” said Kristin Liu, principal investigator for the TIES Center, the national technical assistance center on inclusive policies and practices in K-8 schools.

Sheryl Lazarus, director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes at ICI, said that team is also interested in future collaborations at MIDB.

“The NCEO team looks forward to discussing the needs and characteristics of children with autism and other disabilities with clinicians and families as we strive to make assessments used for accountability and other purposes more accessible,” Lazarus said.

In a December 2020 CEHD Connect article, former Dean Jean Quam predicted that MIDB would be one of the most exciting partnerships in the history of the college. 

“It’s unique that a college of education would partner with a medical school and that we would look for strengths that we have and the things we have in common,” Quam said, adding that ICI’s history of interdisciplinary outreach would serve as a model for collaboration at the new institute.

“Viewing disability as a unique difference rather than a problem to be solved is a foundational aspect of ICI,” Hewitt said. “Our approach to supporting people with developmental and neurodevelopmental disabilities throughout their lives will inform the work of MIDB and create more inclusive communities for many years to come.”