Shelley Akabas, Columbia U social work pioneer who transformed the world of work, dies at 92


(JTA) — Sheila (Shelley) Akabas, a retired professor of social work at Columbia University who pioneered research into how labor and management could expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities and other challenges, died Nov. 17. She was 92.

Trained as a labor economist, she joined the Columbia faculty in 1969, and was soon appointed director of the Industrial Social Welfare Center, which promoted equal employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

The center was launched in an era when few companies thought it was their business to address the emotional problems, physical challenges and other stress factors that might affect an employee’s work. Akabas and her peers urged management to train supervisors to identify struggling employees and workplace stressors, provide direct services and link employees with community facilities.

Now known as the Center for Social Policy and Practice in the Workplace, the center Akabas led provides research and guidance for helping a range of people enter the workforce, from those with mental illness to the formerly incarcerated.

“It might be said that the world of work is my ‘beat,’” Akabas wrote in a statement for Columbia’s School of Social Work website. “My special interest through a long career has been in equal opportunity in the labor market for diverse populations.”

When she retired in 2013, Columbia’s School of Social work estimated that she had educated more than 1,000 of its students and mentored hundreds. In addition to developing the Workplace Center, she developed, designed and led the Social Enterprise Administration program, which trains social workers in management and organizational theory, and championed the World of Work field, which helps clients navigate obstacles in the workplace, including discrimination and unequal opportunity.

Sheila Epstein was born in New York City to a Jewish family. After attending Hunter School for Girls, she enrolled at Cornell University in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at age 16, graduating first in its class at age 19. Akabas was a founding member of Cornell Hillel’s board of trustees and remained active in the student organization for most of her life.

“In the mid-nineties, Shelley helped revitalize our Hillel and helped create the organization it is today,” Cornell Hillel said in a statement on their Facebook page. “Over twenty years as a Hillel Trustee and Honorary Trustee, Shelley imagined programs, recruited more than a dozen board members, and, more recently, offered sage advice as a Hillel elder.”

Akabas earned a PhD in economics at NYU and became one of the first women to join the tenured graduate school faculty at Columbia University in 1969.

She and her husband, Aaron Akabas, were active at the Manhattan synagogue B’nai Jeshurun. Among her many affiliations were the Statewide Educational Advisory Board of the NYS Office of Mental Health, the New York State Workers Compensation Board and the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

Jeanette Takamura, then dean of Columbia’s School of Social Work, paid tribute to Akabas when she retired in 2013. “Dr. Akabas demonstrated over four decades the importance and the value of faculty who are not necessarily social workers by professional training, but who are social workers in spirit because of their orientation and their lived dedication to the profession and its ideals,” she said. “She helped make the School what it is today.”

Akabas is survived by her husband; a brother, Howard; three children, nine grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.