Drs. Kathryn Johnson and Amy Hebert Knopf: A story of thankfulness

Drs Johnson and Knopf

A theme of the collaborative work of Drs. Kathryn Johnson and Amy Hebert Knopf is “thankfulness.” One of the most thankful aspects of their work was finding each other in 2013 at a conference in St. Paul. Though their life journeys were quite different, with Kathryn growing up on a farm not far from St. Cloud and Amy growing up in southern Louisiana, they both arrived at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota to begin their careers as faculty. Kathy started at SCSU in the fall of 2005, after serving as a teacher for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students in St. Cloud Schools for over 15 years. Amy started her career at SCSU in the fall of 2013 after working in research and outreach for improving services for Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

It was not a coincidence that the conference where they met in the fall of 2013 focused on internationalizing teaching and learning within university classes, as their mutual passion for international work became evident over the next year of emerging friendship. Kathryn’s international advocacy began during her first trip to China in the summer of 2000, where she joined a Gallaudet University China Delegation. During her three weeks in China, Kathryn fell in love with the country, the culture, and the people, inclusive of individuals with disabilities. Her trip to China was life-changing and compelled her to focus her dissertation research on Deaf education in China. In 2014, after numerous trips to China leading education abroad programs for students, teachers, and administrators during the previous 14 years, Kathryn finally convinced Amy to join her on a trip to Beijing. One of the goals of the trip was to assist a graduate student, Aaron, on his thesis research where he was assessing accessibility in Beijing. As a young adult who was a wheelchair user, the trip was an eye-opener for both Amy and Aaron in an area of immense need. Thus began the journey of advocacy for Amy within China. For Kathryn, this meant finally finding someone who was just as passionate, dedicated, and determined to make a difference in the world.

An area of mutual expertise for both is in working with individuals who are Deaf, with both being fluent in American Sign Language and having strong connections to the Deaf community. This connection has strengthened their passion for working on a global stage. They have organized and led delegations to China for teachers and administrators from schools for the Deaf in the U.S. In June of 2018, they collaborated with Changchun University on hosting a conference on Deaf education and employment in China. In addition, they facilitated a panel presentation of delegation members at the U.S. Embassy to a room filled with Deaf adults from Beijing. An outcome of this delegation was the initiation of the “U.S. China Deaf School Project.” To support this initiative, the first cohort of Chinese student interns who were Deaf came to the U.S. to teach Chinese sign language and culture at three schools for the Deaf. This pilot team was supported by SCSU Visiting Scholar Xiaorong Zhou, who is Deaf. She has been researching and studying the teaching and learning of American Sign Language to help develop the learning of Chinese Sign Language. Kathryn, Amy, and Xiaorong have also been collaboratively researching the development of Chinese sign language interpreter education and certification in China, seeking partners for advancing this area of critical need within China.

Foundational to their continued work is advancing knowledge and understanding of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. With an emphasis on SDG #17, revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development, Kathryn and Amy have worked hard to develop a strong network of partners to support their work, including The Harkin Institute. Through this connection, Amy served as one of the first George H.W. Bush Fellows in 2018, during which time she was able to complete her sabbatical in China researching Deaf education. The other George H. W. Bush Fellow was SCSU Visiting Scholar Dr. Xuan Zheng, who is also Deaf and the first Deaf person in China to earn a Ph.D. from a Chinese higher education institution, Fudan University. The opportunity for Amy to have dedicated time to research and study Deaf education in China contributed to and complimented the dissertation Kathryn completed 20 years with The Harkin Institute and the Zero Project has opened the door to partnerships with numerous other global organizations, inclusive of Maahs Travels, the International Disability Alliance, World Enabled, and Global Minnesota.
Kathryn and Amy have both dreamed of creating a new center at St. Cloud State University for numerous years that would institutionalize and strengthen their global disability advocacy, research, and development. This dream is becoming a reality with the launch of the SCSU Center for International Disability Advocacy and Diplomacy in the fall of 2021. This Center will be housed under the Office of the SCSU President and will serve as an innovation hub with a mission focused on five pillars of development:

(1) strengthening cross-cultural knowledge and understanding through global academies;

(2) developing strategic networks and partnerships for advancing the U.S. CRPD and SDGs;

(3) promoting and advancing the rights of people with disabilities through education and training;

(4) promoting scholarly research, training and development; and,

(5) promoting diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility at all levels of public policy and diplomacy. Kathryn and Amy will serve as the Directors of the Center, which will provide dedicated time and energy for grant writing, publications, and program development with partners.

The first significant event for the Center will be the Fall 2021 ABILITY Event that culminates in December in Dubai, UAE, at the Dubai Expo 2020. A six-part speaker series during fall semester of 2021 will highlight the U.N. CRPD and SDGs, with prominent presenters from around the globe sharing their expertise on these two critical topics. Kathryn and Amy are part of the World Expo Disability Coalition that is hosting an #EndExclusion and #PromoteInclusion Festival and Celebration Week at Dubai Expo from November 28-December 3, 2021. The week will feature events focused on health and wellness, technology, arts and culture, education, employment, accessibility, disability policy, and advocacy for and with people with disabilities. The week will culminate with the U.N. International Day for Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3 event held at the Expo.

This story of thankfulness highlights the synergy and passion that exists within the collaborative work of Kathryn and Amy. Both are personally and professionally committed to advancing disability rights globally. Kathryn’s personal connection is through having a child with a disability and growing up with a brother with a disability. Amy’s personal connection is through having a disability herself. The intersection of their personal connections to their professional passion keeps the two grounded in practice founded upon research and data-driven decision making as university teacher-scholars.

With so many challenges existing in the world today, it helps to pause, reflect and remember what we are truly thankful for each day. By sharing this story, it is hoped that you reach out to someone you love working with and remind them how thankful you truly are for having them in your life. For more information or to contact Drs. Johnson and Knopf, please feel free to email them at:

[email protected] and [email protected]

*Registration for the ABILITY Event may be found at www.scsutraining.com/ability.