From Glassboro to Kenya to the UN, preventing for disability rights, inclusive training | Rowan At present
Education for all children, says Brent C. Elder simply, “is a fundamental human right.”
From the classrooms in Glassboro to those in Kenya, Bahrain, Ghana, Rwanda and beyond, Elder is focused on ensuring that children with disabilities receive the same education as non-disabled students in the same classroom.
It’s called inclusive education – inclusion for short.
And Elder, Professor of Interdisciplinary and Inclusive Education at Rowan College of Education, devotes his life, teaching, and research to helping teachers and schools so that students with and without disabilities can learn and thrive side by side in every classroom around the world.
He saw that inclusion is possible even in the most remote classrooms, where up to 50 students live or where basic needs are missing. Indeed, Elder’s research helped make inclusive education a reality on a global scale.
“In Kenya, I’ve seen teachers practice magic in their classrooms. Some also taught without electricity, running water and in some cases with books, ”says Elder, who began working in inclusive education internationally in Bahrain in 2007.
While doing his PhD at Syracuse University, Elder and Michelle Damiani, also Rowan Professor of Interdisciplinary and Inclusive Education, designed inclusive education modules recently approved by UNICEF in Ghana and USAID in Rwanda.
“It’s really eye-opening to see teachers, some with their own babies on their backs, practice inclusive education,” Elder says. “It’s just amazing to see a team of teachers constructively criticizing inclusive education and then translating culturally relevant inclusive practices into their own language and context step by step through the modules we created.
“They work together to do the work and do it better.”
Adviser to the United Nations
Elder’s work received a huge boost this fall when the Tangata Group, a non-governmental organization he co-founded with three internationally known disability rights activists, was granted special advisory status by the United Nations.
Elder and his colleagues are now being asked to provide expert advice to the 168 member states that have adopted the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD was adopted in 2006 and is committed to upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms for people with disabilities. The international framework guides policy making and legislation to build an inclusive global society.
Tangata (pronounced Tan-JAA-ta) is a Maori word that roughly translated means “the essence of being”. The Tangata Group was founded in 2015 and is a human and disability rights based organization that serves as a source of information, strategy, idea and technical support for and with people with disabilities. The group works with national and international communities to develop local projects that support access for people with disabilities to advocacy, education, legal reform and sustainable development.
The Tangata group includes Elder, a fifth year Rowan professor; Michael A. Schwartz, law professor in Syracuse; international human rights attorney Janet Lord, Senior Fellow at Harvard Law School; and Judy Heumann, an internationally recognized leader in the disability rights community who was President Barack Obama’s first special adviser on international disability rights at the State Department.
Tangata Group is small on purpose. But powerful.
“Advisory status gives us more leverage,” Elder said of the United Nations recognition. “It helps us shape practices related to the CRPD. Now we can have more influence on how things are done on the ground. “
Grassroots work is critical to Elder. He began his educational journey as an assistant in a separate residential facility for adolescents and adults with multiple and complex disabilities.
“You would see parents get children there as a last resort,” Elder says. “I thought to myself, ‘Our education system is in a real mess.’ I wanted to try to create a different reality for families. “
His work in special education met with a positive response. Eventually he served as a primary school teacher in a public school and was named Educator of the Year.
“I loved it immediately,” Elder says of the teaching. “I was fascinated by the variety of labels for disabled people and how cool the population is.”
“If we can find this out, imagine what we can do around the world.”
A trip to Kenya in 2010, which he paid for out of his own pocket, set the stage for his life’s work.
“I saw massive global problems at one point,” says Elder, who worked with the US Embassy in Manama, Bahrain and was an education advisor for the Kenyan Ministry of Education for Inclusive Education.
I thought, ‘If we can find out about this, imagine what we can do around the world. This is work I have to do, ”continues Elder, who received a 2015 Fulbright Fellowship for his PhD in Kenya.
“The practical application of what inclusion can and should look like is one of the greatest challenges in education in the US and around the world.”
Elder’s international research is helping him better prepare Rowan Education Majors for teaching in inclusive classrooms. It also helps him better serve Bowe School in Glassboro, where he is a professor in residence, doing community-based research, and developing professionally. Elder works with administrators, faculty, students, parents, staff, and Rowan students in clinical practice to help the school meet inclusive educational goals.
“I have to work in schools,” Elder says. “Building sustainable relationships and inclusive communities is fundamental to my work.
“It was important for me to think about inclusive education both locally and globally and to consider how each location can inform the other in an important and transformative way.”
Ultimately, however, it is about building inclusive schools and communities that lead to better opportunities for students with and without disabilities, says Elder, whose research is widely published in the International Journal of Inclusive Education.
“We have to stop each other when we work together to create a world everyone belongs in. That is a collective promise that we must keep. “