From Glassboro to Kenya to the UN, fighting for disability rights, inclusive education

From Glassboro to Kenya to the UN, fighting for disability rights, inclusive education

College of Education Professor Brent C. Elder speaks with documentary filmmaker Gem Hall during a recent trip to Kenya. Hall is chronicling the efforts of Elder and his colleagues to advance inclusive education around the world.

Education for all kids, Brent C. Elder says simply, “is a basic human right.”

From the classrooms of Glassboro to those in Kenya, Bahrain, Ghana, Rwanda, and beyond, Elder is focused on ensuring that children with disabilities receive the same education, in the same classroom, that non-disabled students do.

It’s called inclusive education—inclusion for short.

And Elder, a professor of interdisciplinary and inclusive education in Rowan’s College of Education, is dedicating his life, teaching and research to assisting teachers and schools so that students with and without disabilities can study and thrive, side-by-side, in every classroom around the world.

He has witnessed that inclusion is possible even in the most remote classrooms that may have as many as 50 students or lack basic necessities. In fact, Elder’s research has helped to make inclusive education a reality on a global scale.

“In Kenya, I saw teachers working magic in their classrooms, with some inclusively teaching in the absence of electricity, running water, and, in some cases, books,” says Elder, who began working in inclusive education internationally in Bahrain in 2007.

During his doctoral studies at Syracuse University, Elder and Michelle Damiani, also a Rowan professor of interdisciplinary and inclusive education, designed modules for inclusive education that were recently adopted by UNICEF in Ghana and USAID in Rwanda.

“It’s really eye opening to see teachers, some with their own babies strapped on their backs, practice inclusive education,” Elder says. “It’s just mind blowing to see a team of teachers being constructively critical of inclusive education and then translating culturally relevant inclusive practices into their own language and context, step by step, through the modules we’ve created.

“They’re working together to take the work and make it better.”

Consultant for the United Nations

Elder’s work got a huge boost this fall when Tangata Group, a non-governmental organization he co-founded with three internationally prominent disability rights activists, earned special consultative status from the United Nations.

Now, Elder and his colleagues are being called on to provide expert guidance for the 168 member states that have adopted the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Passed in 2006, the CRPD works to ensure the 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.” Founded in 2015, Tangata Group is a human and disability rights-based organization that serves as a resource of information, strategies, ideas and technical assistance for and with people with disabilities. The group collaborates with domestic and international communities to develop local projects that support access to advocacy, education, law reform, and sustainable development for people with disabilities.

Tangata Group includes Elder, a fifth-year Rowan professor; Syracuse law professor Michael A. Schwartz; international human rights lawyer Janet Lord, a 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 advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State.

Tangata Group is intentionally small. But mighty.

“Consultative status gives us more influence,” Elder says of the U.N. recognition. “It helps us shape practices related to the CRPD. Now, we have a stronger ability to influence how things are done on the ground.”

Grassroots work is critically important to Elder. He began his journey in education as an aide in a segregated residential institution for youth and adults with multiple and complex disability labels.

“You would see parents dropping kids off there as a last resort,” says Elder. “I thought to myself, ‘There’s something really messed up about our educational system.’ I wanted to try and create a different reality for families.”

Working in special education resonated with him. Eventually, he served as an elementary school teacher in a public school, earning Educator of the Year honors.

“I loved it immediately,” Elder says of teaching. “I was fascinated by the variety of disability labels people have and by how cool the population is.”

‘If we can figure this out here, imagine what we can do throughout the world’

A trip to Kenya in 2010—one he paid for out of his own pocket—set the stage for his life’s work.

“I saw massive global issues intersecting in one spot,” says Elder, who has collaborated with the U.S. Embassy in Manama, Bahrain and served as an education consultant with the Ministry of Education in Kenya on inclusive education.

“I thought, ‘If we can figure this out here, imagine what we can do throughout the world. This is work I have to do,’” continues Elder, who landed a Fulbright scholarship to Kenya in 2015 for his doctoral research.

“The practical application of what inclusion can—and should—look like is one of the biggest challenges in education in the U.S. and around the world.”

Elder’s international research helps him better prepare Rowan education majors to teach in inclusive classrooms. It also helps him better serve Glassboro’s Bowe School, where he is the professor-in-residence, conducting community-based research and providing professional development. Elder works with administration, faculty, students, parents, staff and Rowan students in clinical practice to help the school achieve inclusive education goals.

“I have to work in schools,” says Elder. “Building sustainable relationships and inclusive communities is foundational to all of the work I do.

 “For me, it has been critical to think both locally and globally about inclusive education and to consider how each location can inform the other in important and transformative ways.”

Ultimately, however, “The work is about building inclusive schools and communities that lead to better opportunities for students with and without disabilities,” emphasizes Elder, whose research has been published widely, including in the International Journal of Inclusive Education.

 “We have to hold each other up as we work together to create a world where everyone belongs. That’s a collective promise we must keep.”