Through her ministry work in East Africa, Erin Powell ’04 is dedicated to improving the conditions for individuals with disabilities. Just a few years into her career as a special education teacher, she left the suburbs of Chicago to serve the remote and developing regions of East Africa.
Powell said that when she arrived in Uganda in 2007, the plan was to provide hospice, AIDS awareness, and social work for one year. She fully expected to return to the United States to resume her career in the classroom. However, after just a few short months, Powell made the decision to continue her efforts in East Africa indefinitely.
“Originally, I didn’t plan on working with people with disabilities,” she said. “But, as I completed my first year of ministry service, I was deeply affected by the situation for people with disabilities, including the negative attitudes directed toward them and the daily challenges they endure.”
Powell found that children and adults with disabilities do not receive the same access to education, nourishment, or resources for hygiene as their peers. They often are not accepted by society or even their own families, and they are viewed through a deficit perspective.
“When people in East Africa see a child in a wheelchair, they focus on the disability rather than the abilities of the child,” Powell said. “If negative attitudes are not changed, people will not recognize the benefit of valuing people with disabilities and make efforts to include them in education or other institutions.”
That’s where Powell steps in. She said that her aim is not to impose American culture. Instead, she works to evolve society’s perspective by providing education on the capabilities of individuals with disabilities and their valuable contributions to society.
To enact this change, Powell involves the participation of different stakeholders in communities. She trains leaders on how to reach people with disabilities, provides life skills to individuals with disabilities, educates families, and empowers schools to serve all learners.
“Traditionally, teachers in these regions have taught in a very rote manner,” Powell said. “In their mind, there is only one way to learn, and it is not inclusive of students with disabilities.”
She said that when she first arrives in a new community, parents, teachers, and administrators often hold
the opinion that students with physical and intellectual disabilities cannot learn. As a result, communities do not invest time and money into educating these individuals.
“Attitudes and views do not change overnight, but each opportunity is a chance to move one step closer towards valuing and including people with disabilities,” Powell said.
Powell influences their thinking by developing knowledge and skill base for inclusive practices. These trainings are delivered through a culturally and linguistically sensitive approach. For example, when referring to students with intellectual disabilities, Powell uses language such as “slow learners” or “struggling learners.” Although these labels represent outdated terminology in the U.S., the identifier “intellectual disability” carries a sharp negative connotation in East Africa. Its use results in the direct marginalization of students.
To circumvent these issues, Powell minimizes the attention to naming a student’s disability. Instead, she ensures that teachers are equipped with the proper strategies needed to assess student needs and educate all learners.
“When I train a group, I never go into it with a judgmental attitude,” Powell said. “I ask myself, ‘Where are they in the inclusion framework?’ and then work to move them to the next step of inclusion.”
Powell also reaches out to local leaders to provide preventive medical training. She links these individuals with local resources capable of serving some of the basic needs of their communities.
“Many situations are preventable, but due to lack of knowledge and resources—including a shortage of financial backing or health clinics—people become disabled,” Powell said.
Because of widespread poverty in these regions, individuals with disabilities often do not have access to the education, assistive technologies, and physical therapy treatment available to residents in the U.S. While this reality is a difficult obstacle to overcome, Powell’s efforts bring optimism and hope to each new community she serves. She said people in Africa have resources of their own, and possess strong spiritual awareness, intelligence, and a valuable group-oriented mindset.
“Once they recognize the value of a person with a disability and how to help and empower that person, there is much opportunity for inclusion and for the individual to reach his or her fullest potential,” she said.
Powell credits the education she received at Illinois State for developing her confidence and competence to serve these diverse populations.
“Illinois State gave me a foundational framework for teaching and helping each individual learner reach his or her highest potential,” she said. “The knowledge I gained from my education allowed me to then develop my teaching, and it continues to serve me as I teach children and adults in other cultures.”
To learn more about Powell’s journey, check out her personal blog.
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