How Christiana Asantewaa Okyere is making education more inclusive
Believe it or not, Dr. Christiana Okyere says her favourite season is winter.
“Back home in Ghana, there are only two seasons – the rainy season and the dry season,” she says. “During the Canadian winter, I love to wear a jacket and I love to cover myself with a duvet and get nice and comfortable…I just love it.”
Dr. Okyere came to Canada in 2015 after completing a bachelor’s degree and masters at the University of Ghana. She recently completed her doctorate in rehabilitation therapy at Queen’s, marking a transition from pure social science to health science.
Dr. Okyere’s research focuses on inclusive education for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, a concept which has three components: access, equity, and support. Access means that environmental barriers to educational opportunities are addressed to enable all children access quality education. Equity means making sure that there is fairness in available opportunities for all children. Support entails ensuring that adequate resources are available and also adjusted to satisfy the needs of all children – particularly those with disabilities – feel safe in the classroom environment.
She first became passionate about inclusive education when working with a non-governmental organization in Ghana called The Databank Foundation, which focuses on mental health leadership development and education for children with disabilities, and when she later volunteered at a psychiatric hospital in the capital of Accra.
“In the ward, you would find children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and a lot of them had been abandoned by their parents because of poverty and lack of education,” she says. “Working with them and being on the ground I developed a passion for the topic of inclusive education, and so I decided I would like to research how these children can get a quality education. For my masters I looked specifically at children with developmental disabilities in special schools – my PhD builds on that research by looking at schools which include a mix of students.”
Building on that effort through her doctoral research, she returned to her home country to understand how Ghanaian students with disabilities are supported during their learning.
Over the course of three months, she worked with 16 children in four inclusive schools, as well as 18 teachers including both general education and special education teachers. The children ranged in age from 9 to 15. Dr. Okyere would be present in class observing the students and teachers, but she would also work directly with the students who had disabilities to understand their perspective. Through a technique known as “draw and write”, Dr. Okyere would ask the students to draw a picture representing how they felt and then ask the student questions about the picture to help understand their thoughts.
One of the most surprising findings for Dr. Okyere during her research was how the children with disabilities were often punished for perceived ‘misbehaviour’ which tended to relate back to their disability. Through interviews with the teachers, she found many of the teachers were ill-equipped to help these students – especially in a class with as many as 80 children.
“Sometimes they genuinely forget that these students even exist,” she says. “The curriculum is not tailored to much deeper needs and it's a struggle for them. A lot of the teachers were really willing to support these students, but they did not know what to do.”
As she prepares for a post-doctoral position, Dr. Okyere is looking to the future – ideally a job that combined teaching and working in industry – and eventually plans to work with countries like Ghana in building more inclusive education systems.
She is also reminiscing about her time at Queen’s and Kingston, where she was able to explore some of her other passions – including volunteering with several local charities focused on inclusion, faith, and poverty alleviation.
“A lot of people have given to me to make me what I am now,” she says. “I am always thinking about giving back, even in my research. I'm thinking about research that would really make an impact.”
For new students starting or thinking about graduate studies, her advice is to take it one day at a time.
“Queen’s is a really nice environment. Your peers are supportive. The faculty are supportive. Take advantage of the support that is there, whether it is through the School of Graduate Studies, the athletic facilities, the Centre for Teaching and Learning, or wherever you find it.”
This article was originally published by the School of Graduate Studies