Diversity, Equity, and Human Rights: An Interview with Janet Njelesani on Educational Opportunity for Children with Disabilities in Zambia

Janet Njelesani

Janet Njelesani, assistant professor of occupational therapy, researches how social, cultural, and institutional practices impact the education of children and youth with disabilities. Her work is influenced by her experience as an occupational therapist and disability inclusion technical advisor to international governments and United Nations agencies.

Njelesani received Steinhardt’s Global Research Incubator Award in 2017 to carry out a pilot project on school violence against children with disabilities in Lusaka, Zambia in which she is collaborating with the University of Zambia and Ministry of Education. She uses child-centered methodologies, including arts-based research methods,  to engage students with disabilities. Graduate students from both the University of Zambia and NYU Steinhardt are involved in this research process and are learning how to elicit children’s experience through qualitative methods, as well as learning how to build an international research partnership.

A child’s drawing is used to gain insight into her social experience at school.

You are studying violence against children with disabilities in Zambia.  What led you to your research?

Violence at school exists in every country, spanning across cultures, classes, education levels, abilities, incomes, and ethnic origins, and children with disabilities are at a significantly greater risk than their non-disabled peers. Although some one million children are living with disabilities in Zambia and the country is committed to education for all children, little is known about children with disabilities’ school experiences, including the violence that may be perpetuated against them. The experiences of these students are important to understand because violence in schools can not only cause physical harm and psychological distress, but also can affect a child’s ability to learn while in school.  Many students won’t remain in school long enough to reap the benefits of education as parents pull them out for safety reasons.

What are some of the risk factors that children with disabilities face?  

There is a complex interaction of child characteristics (e.g., type of impairment), societal biases (e.g., disability stigma), and other environmental factors (e.g., cultural beliefs and gender norms) that interact to cause greater violence against students with disabilities. Data from recent national school surveys indicated that the prevalence of non-disabled children being bullied by peers was 63% and virtually all (97%) have reported being physically punished by teachers over the past school year. Despite this high incidence of violence against non-disabled children, violence against children with disabilities is even higher in Zambia where there are greater stigmas associated with having a disability and less resources and services available for children with disabilities to succeed at school.

Janet Njelesani (left) and members of the research team discuss how to adapt research tools to include students with all kinds of disabilities.

You come to your research as an occupational therapist.  How does this influence your point of view?

As an occupational therapy practitioner and scholar, I strive to carry out work that centers on illuminating issues of diversity, equity, and human rights for children and adults with disabilities living in low and middle-income countries. Being an occupational therapist has influenced how I carry out my research in regard to understanding that the participation and rights of persons with disabilities have traditionally been neglected in research and policy. Furthermore, client-centeredness, which assumes that clients are the experts in their lives, is core to the profession of occupational therapy, so I understand the need to partner and collaborate with persons with disabilities, their families, and representative organizations, in order to combine our complementary skills and knowledge to address the rights of persons with disabilities.

What do children reveal in their art work?

Arts-based methods are one of the many tools I use in my research because they can be adapted to meet the diverse needs of children, for example a child who has difficulty communicating may prefer to draw a picture, whereas a child with a vision impairment may prefer telling a story.
Children often reveal in their art what is most important to them, helping us to understand what supports are already in place in their school community and which we can build upon.  They also express their challenges. From an occupational therapy  perspective, this expression has therapeutic value as often they’ve never been given the opportunity to share these experiences before.

This primary school in Lusaka, Zambia includes children with disabilities.

What interventions will help schools decrease violence against children?  

The Government of Zambia has committed to developing education policy and improving access to quality education for all Zambian children, including those with disabilities. As this study is being carried out in conjunction with researchers from the University of Zambia and policy makers in the Zambian Ministry of Education, findings can be used to inform policy and develop comprehensive and effective violence prevention that are inclusive of all children, including students with disabilities in Zambia.

Read more by Janet Njelesani:  From the day they are born: a qualitative study exploring violence against children with disabilities in West Africa