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Dr. Setareh Ghahari

A single project can open the doors for many people. Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program Collaborative Research Project

For the past two years, Setareh Ghahari has been immersed in a collaborative research project with scholars at the University of Gondar (UoG) that aims to examine the many barriers faced by students with disabilities in Ethiopian universities and how to improve their access to education.

Participating in the project was an opportunity Dr. Ghahari couldn’t pass up, given her research focus on improving access to health care and services, specifically for those with a disability, and her interest in exploring practices in other countries.

“For me, this project is about access, and I was very interested in working with researchers in Africa, to expand my horizons and view of life there,” says Dr. Ghahari, Associate Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, who is working alongside Sisay Haile from the University of Gondar. Drs. Ghahari and Haile are both Co-Principal Investigators (Co-PIs) on the project, with contributions from several other researchers at UoG.

Early on in the project, in November 2018, Dr. Ghahari travelled to Gondar to meet with the group of researchers. During this visit, while touring UoG and other schools, she could see there was important work to be done in this area of Ethiopia, in terms of improving policy and accommodation practices for students with disabilities. As the project progressed, she says she often found it heartbreaking to hear from students who faced considerable challenges and discrimination as a result of their disabilities.

“I remember one student’s story in particular – the person had a visual impairment, and they said an instructor told them, ‘Your eyes are gone, so is your heart.’” Instructors’ negative attitudes towards students with disabilities surfaced repeatedly during the research.

“A single project can open the doors for many people,” Dr. Ghahari says.

Dr. Ghahari and Dr. Haile’s study is the first collaborative research project to be conducted through the unique partnership between Queen’s and UoG that launched in early 2017, funded by the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program. Four other research projects also began this year (see sidebar).

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In their study, Dr. Haile and Dr. Ghahari focused on examining the current state of accommodation practices (the physical, educational, and social environments) in Ethiopian universities and how these practices correspond with the success of students with disabilities. The researchers looked at nine government universities in Ethiopia and conducted both quantitative and qualitative research; study participants included hundreds of students with and without disabilities, along with hundreds of teaching staff, and dozens of university leaders.

Dr. Ghahari says, overall, they found that at a policy level, the Ethiopian government has recognized inclusive education as a desirable form of education for students with disabilities. On a practical level, however, it has not adopted the policies in its higher education institutions. It was observed that instructors, in general, do not have enough awareness or education regarding accessibility and the challenges students with disabilities face; instructors also do not have the authority to make changes with respect to teaching operations. Physical barriers on campuses also appeared as a major issue for students with disabilities.

“Because of the architectural barriers, students have trouble accessing class and socializing, and that affects their psychological state while at the university. They have to rely on other people to help them,” says Dr. Ghahari. “It was also clear that there are so many students with disabilities who can’t even get to university, or they drop out.”

Moving forward, the researchers hope that the results of the study and the recommendations they have formulated – including consistent education for instructors on accessibility and accommodations, and specific ways to improve physical barriers – will make an impact in Ethiopia sooner rather than later. They have prepared a report for the ministry of education in Ethiopia, and they intend to hold workshops within Ethiopian universities to report on the results and provide recommendations. They will also submit papers to open access journals, attend conferences (when this is possible), and apply for further funding from the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program to support a project to implement their recommendations in Ethiopian universities.

The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is a 10-year, $24-million partnership that brought Queen’s and the University of Gondar together to support the growth of expertise in disability inclusion at the Ethiopian university and create a network for bi-directional knowledge sharing around inclusion. The partnership, now in its fourth year, includes:

  • Scholarships for 450 undergraduate scholars, including those with disabilities and from areas of conflict, to study at Gondar
  • 60 faculty members from the University of Gondar to study at the graduate level at Queen’s
  • A Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) certificate program
  • An internationally recognized occupational therapy curriculum at the University of Gondar - the first Occupational Therapy program in Ethiopia
  • Funding for eight Collaborative Research Projects between University of Gondar faculty and Queen’s faculty to support knowledge translation for inclusive education for young people with disabilities in Ethiopia and/or CBR practice in Ethiopia. The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is currently accepting applications for Collaborative Research Projects with Co-PIs at Queen’s and the University of Gondar. The deadline to apply is Sept. 16, 2020. For more details, visit the Queen’s-UoG partnership website or email the Mastercard Foundation project research and learning coordinator: mcfrlcoord@queensu.ca


The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is currently accepting applications for Collaborative Research Projects with Co-PIs at Queen’s and the University of Gondar. The deadline to apply is Sept. 16, 2020. For more details, visit the Queen’s-UoG partnership website or email the Mastercard Foundation project research and learning coordinator: mcfrlcoord@queensu.ca

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