About the Department Of Special Education & Communicative Disorders


The Department of Special Education at San Francisco State University offers multiple programs, including a doctorate of philosophy degree (Ph.D.), master’s degrees, certificates, teaching and clinical rehabilitative services credentials in Special Education and Communicative Disorders. It has pioneered many of the programs and services for individuals with disabilities.   

Department Philosophy

The Department of Special Education is strongly committed to human rights, social justice, and equal access for individuals with disabilities across the lifespan.

Department Mission

The Department prepares leaders and professionals (educators, clinicians, service specialists) to support the full participation of individuals with disabilities and their families in the same educational, vocational, and social communities as their peers.  Support occurs across diverse settings with professionals assuming a variety of roles. 

Department History

The Department of Special Education was established in 1948 as the first such academic unit in the state of California.  Dr. Leo Cain, the first department chair, was instrumental in developing federal policy for Special Education through his role on the President's Committee on Mental Retardation.  With Dr. Cain, five faculty original members led the development of the following program areas:

  • Leon Lassers, Communicative Disorders
  • Jerry Rothstein, Mental Retardation
  • Priscilla Pittinger, Deafness
  • Mable Whitehead, Orthopedically Disabled
  • Florence Henderson, Blindness

Through the decades, the Department provided leadership in the field with prominent faculty members in the areas of Inclusive Education, Visual Impairment, Early Childhood Special Education, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Transition To Work, Sign Language Assessment, Deafness, Augmentative and Alternative Communication, to name a few.

In 1967, San Francisco State College began the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education with the University of California, Berkeley. The Joint PhD Program was the first such program approved in the state of California by the Joint Graduate Board and is now in its fifth decade. The culture of innovation, research and scholarship in the Department is integrally connected with the Joint PhD Program, as this provides the opportunity for faculty members to collaborate with doctoral students in research and model development, and to train future university academicians.