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Equality and Voice: Heather Aldersey and the University of Gondar

[Heather Aldersey]Equity has always been a top priority for Dr. Heather Aldersey, Queen’s National Scholar in international community-based rehabilitation and assistant professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy. A researcher in community-based rehabilitation (CBR), a discipline focused on supporting people with disabilities and their families and communities in low- and middle-income countries, Aldersey works with families and people with disabilities to identify the problems they face.

“I really try to focus on strengths and solutions,” she says, “by looking at what exists and what works with families, and how to build on that and share that with other families.” Aldersey worked with families in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Bangladesh, and through her role as the faculty lead for the Queen’s-based International Centre for the Advancement of Community-Based Rehabilitation (ICACBR). Her participatory approach inverts the traditional top-down methods employed in many research projects.

“A big piece of participatory research is that I’m not setting the research agenda – I’m working with communities to identify problems and set the research agenda together,” Aldersey explains. For example, through the Access to Health and Education for all Children and Youth with Disabilities in Bangladesh (AHEAD) project, Aldersey and colleagues collaborated with wheelchair users in Bangladesh to identify research questions that were important to them. Aldersey and colleagues then trained them in the relevant research methods and analysis techniques, and the research team members who used wheelchairs collected data from other wheelchair users. Now the team, comprised of both academic and community researchers, is working on data analysis and action based on the research findings.

[Heather Aldersey and Anushka Joseph]
Dr. Heather Aldersey and the Queen's Project Manager, Anushka Joseph, in Debark, Ethiopia

In an exciting new partnership with the University of Gondar in Ethiopia, Aldersey will collaborate with international colleagues on a much larger scale. The MasterCard Foundation (MCF) Scholars Program has invested $24.2M USD for a ten-year period into this partnership, funding multiple research projects and scholarships that will create a new generation of researchers and leaders in Ethiopia. Aldersey, as the designated Queen’s faculty lead in the partnership, is thrilled about the impact this grant will have on the University of Gondar’s vision to become the top research facility for CBR in East Africa.

The grant will fund eight research projects from a variety of disciplines over the next ten years, and any project topic will be considered so long as it benefits community-based rehabilitation and/or inclusive education in Ethiopia. The wide scope of projects that could fall under these themes was an intentional construction from both universities. “We’ve left it very broad to allow the freedom for researchers here at Queen’s and researchers at the University of Gondar to come together and explore their mutual interests,” Aldersey explains. Projects must have one principal investigator at each university, and this construction relies on individual faculty members to reach out to each other in order to develop their project proposals.

We anticipate that the project leads will work together to explore topics of mutual interest that address pressing issues related to education and inclusion of youth with disabilities in Africa.

[Heather Aldersey and Solomon Mekonnen]
Dr. Heather Aldersey and the Ethiopian Co-Director, Dr. Solomon Mekonnen, in Ethiopia

“The research projects will involve a sharing of leadership amongst PIs at each institution,” says Aldersey. “We anticipate that the project leads will work together to explore topics of mutual interest that address pressing issues related to education and inclusion of youth with disabilities in Africa.”

The partnership is still in its early stages, with calls for project proposals to be released over the coming months. Other portions of the MCF grant will fund Queen’s-based training for University of Gondar faculty members in different areas, and provide 450 undergraduate scholarships for talented but disadvantaged youth at the University of Gondar. Queen’s will enroll 16 University of Gondar faculty members into its MSc in Occupational Therapy program, and these faculty members will then return to the University of Gondar and continue to work with Queen’s faculty and MCF project staff to create the first undergraduate Occupational Therapy program in Ethiopia. The grant will also support the University of Gondar’s mission to employ more faculty with doctoral degrees by supporting 44 of its faculty members to undertake PhD research at Queen’s focusing on topics relevant to disability.

In terms of human rights and access to services, the time is right now. There is an urgent need to increase access to support and capacity for inclusion for people with disabilities on the continent of Africa.

The ICACBR and Dr. Malcolm Peat

[Malcolm Peat with Canada flags]“The ICACBR was founded in 1991 by Dr. Malcolm Peat, former director of the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, who passed away on January 17, 2017. Dr. Peat was known internationally for his commitment to equity and full inclusion for people with disabilities, particularly those in low resource countries. He had a strong vision for community-based rehabilitation, and the project with the University of Gondar is consistent with his vision and part of his legacy.”

Dr. Marcia Finlayson, Director of the School of Rehabilitation Therapy

The partnership between Queen’s and the University of Gondar will make a substantial impact on the education and scholarship of both schools’ faculty members, but more importantly on the quality of life of those living with disabilities across Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. “Often people with disabilities in situations of poverty are the most disadvantaged when compared with people without disabilities,” Aldersey says. “In terms of human rights and access to services, the time is right now. There is an urgent need to increase access to support and capacity for inclusion for people with disabilities on the continent of Africa.”

Her inclusive, participatory work with the ICACBR and the University of Gondar is an important contribution to meeting this need over the next decade.

Leigh Cameron
(e)AFFECT Issue 11 Spring/Summer 2017

Learn more about: Dr. Aldersey's research