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An inclusive approach to disability research

Queen's researchers Heather Aldersey and Beata Batorowicz are collaborating with youth with disabilities to understand factors affecting their participation in mainstream educational settings in Ethiopia, Ghana, and South Africa.

[Zoom screenshot of a meeting with Aldersey and Batorowicz]
Project team members collaborating remotely. (Photo supplied by Dr. Heather Aldersey) 

Dec. 3 is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPWD). This year’s theme for the United Nations-sanctioned day is “Building Back Together: Toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world,” underscoring the continued importance of disability inclusion work in a pandemic-free future.

Youth with disabilities face significant challenges as they access and navigate mainstream educational settings across Africa, an unfortunate reality that has been further exacerbated by the global pandemic. To effectively include and support talented yet disadvantaged youth with disabilities in their education, we need to know more about the factors affecting their participation.  

Two researchers at the International Centre for the Advancement of Community Based Rehabilitation (ICACBR) at Queen’s University are committed to demystifying what those factors may be. Heather Aldersey, Scientific Director of ICACBR and Canada Research Chair in Disability-Inclusive Development, and Beata Batorowicz (School of Rehabilitation Therapy), are currently collaborating on a multi-country participatory action research (PAR) project. Their work, funded by a $330,000 grant (US $250,000) from the Mastercard Foundation, is being conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Gondar, Ashesi University, and the University of Cape Town. The project aims to explore what barriers and facilitators affect education access and inclusion for youth with disabilities in middle school, high school, and university in Ethiopia, Ghana, and South Africa.

What makes this project unique is how it is being studied. PAR is a research approach that focuses on enabling positive community action as its key objective. PAR researchers work in collaboration with key stakeholders of the research findings, recognizing them as equal partners in the study process. A PAR approach challenges inequality and promotes democracy, helping stimulate social change.

In this work, Dr. Aldersey, Dr. Batorowicz, and their academic colleagues from Africa are collaborating with youth with disabilities as core members of the research team, incorporating youth insights in all stages of the research process, including design of study components, implementation of focus groups, analysis of collected data, and dissemination of key findings.

“The youth researchers on our team are a force for change. I am excited to see how they will take our study findings to advocate for lasting change for their own lives and for the lives of others with disabilities in their communities,” says Dr. Aldersey.

[Photo of a focus group supplied by Heather Aldersey]
Project team members in Ethiopia piloting a focus group discussion. (Photo supplied by Dr. Heather Aldersey)

One of these youth researchers is Tewodros (Teddy) Leulseged Mamo, a PhD candidate and teacher educator in Ethiopia. His personal experiences with physical disability and academic interests in interdisciplinary studies and qualitative inquiry have inspired him to dedicate his career to the empowerment of persons with disabilities in Africa and globally.

“Assuming active roles in research, dissemination, and implementation of such projects is an uplifting experience for disabled researchers,” he says.

Dureyah Abrahams, a fellow youth researcher from South Africa with interests in universal design and accessibility, adds “[As persons living with a disability], we are the experts and thus we should be the ones pioneering our access and inclusion in this world.”

Study results will inform cost-effective changes that can be made at every educational level to better support youth with disabilities in Ethiopia, Ghana, and South Africa to reach their full potential. Additionally, Dr. Aldersey and Dr. Batorowicz anticipate that some aspects of students’ experiences in these African contexts may also resonate with students’ experiences in Canada, for example as it relates to stigmatizing attitudes or the need for public policy adjustments here at home.

Both agree that no country has gotten inclusive education completely right yet. International collaborations and stakeholder partnership, however, are two big steps in the right direction.