Maria Omare, alumna of the Spring 2017 ADA International Fellowship cohort, became the first African woman to win the Professional Fellows Program Alumni Award in May 2019. Maria is the founder and CEO of the Action Foundation, which supports children wtih disabilities and families in Kenya, and has gained acclaim as one of Kenya’s most promising emerging leaders. Here she offers her reflections on how she leveraged her Fellowship experience to achieve positive change and what lessons she found most valuable from her exchange.
Please tell us, in 1-2 sentences about yourself and your work with The Action Foundation.
I am the Founder and Executive Director of The Action Foundation, a non-profit organization registered in Kenya that works to support young children and girls with disabilities from under-served communities to thrive.
What was the Fellowship project idea you brought to the U.S. in April 2017? What were a few projects/program sites you visited while learning about inclusive education at UMass Boston?
My Fellowship project idea was to implement strategies to promote inclusive education in low cost private schools and to cultivate self-advocacy among youth with disabilities, particularly adolescent girls. The program sites I visited were VSA Massachusetts, CAST, Institute of Human Centered Design and Easter Seals Massachusetts
Which evidence-based practices for inclusive education impressed you most out of all those that you encountered during your Fellowship in the U.S.?
There were several evidence-based practices that I encountered that were enriching but the ones that stood out were Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and applying Human Centred Design principles to inclusive education interventions.
Among all the approaches to inclusion that you learned during your Fellowship, which has been the most adaptable for the communities where you work in Kenya? Why?
The most adaptable approach for the schools and communities that The Action Foundation works has been Universal Design for Learning because it supports teachers to provide all students with equal opportunities to learn through flexible learning environments that are customized to individual needs. Teachers in our partner schools have been supported by learning support assistants from our foundation to create educational resources and provide individualized support to learners with disabilities.
How have you utilized inclusive education skills attained during your Fellowship in any of the projects you have spearheaded in Kenya over the past year?
I have utilized the skills gained to develop a teacher’s training program on inclusive early childhood education that has been implemented in The Action Foundation’s partner schools and organizations in our network. Through participating in the fellowship, I learned how to leverage technology to improve learning outcomes for children with disabilities. Through this, The Action Foundation has developed an online peer learning platform for educators and has collaborated with entities such as Center for Study Learning and Performance at Concordia University to provide e-learning resources to our students.
How have you leveraged your networks from the Fellowship (both to people in the U.S. and in East Africa) to promote inclusive education and further TAF’s outstanding work?
The educational materials and resources combined with mentorship from my supervisor Dr Valerie Karr have helped to build on our core projects to support education for young children and girls with disabilities. I have been able to collaborate with other fellows in Kenya where we have supported children with disabilities to participate in inclusive sports activities and enhanced our inclusive education project for ECD teachers.
Was there anything about inclusive education or the disability community in the U.S. that you expected to be true but didn’t find to be the case?
I was surprised that while the US has made great progress towards education for all children, there are still negative attitudes towards inclusive education in the US.
Is there anything within the disability arena that you think Kenya has the potential to do better than the U.S.?
I believe that Kenya has the potential to be a model country for other Education Systems in Africa. This can be attained with increased investments in skills, values and attitudes that are crucial for the achievement of equitable and inclusive education for all, including children with disabilities.
What’s one important lesson you learned during your Fellowship that other Professional Fellows should remember when they return to their home countries?
I learned the importance collaborating with other fellows and organizations with similar interests to achieve project goals. After returning from the fellowship, it can be quite overwhelming with several ideas to implement while at the same time getting back to the usual routine. I learned to prioritize on what is possible to achieve and tap into the great resource that is other fellows in the same area of work.