An Eastern Washington University professor has partnered with the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University to better the lives of disabled people half a world away. Romel Mackelprang, a professor and director of disability studies in EWU’s school of social work, and his counterpart, Gary Shaheen, the senior vice president of the institute, have laid the groundwork to educate and put the disabled peoples of Ghana, Africa, to work.
“I’ve been working there for a couple of years, doing disability work and research for people who had been receiving donated wheelchairs,” said Mackelprang. “Then I took some students to Ghana and our research showed that for people with disabilities, we really need to work on empowerment and entrepreneurial opportunities.”
With that, Mackelprang and Shaheen, who jumped at the chance to help fund and shape the emerging idea, visited Ghana for a week of non-stop work. Meeting with a business university in Ghana, government officials, including the deputy minister of health, and Engage Now, a major NGO in Africa, the two created a platform that not only puts disabled people to work, but also teaches them how to successfully run a business.
“We set people with disabilities up in entrepreneurial businesses or co-ops, but to do that you need resources. For example, one group wants to open a carpenter shop, but that requires $3,000 to $4,000,” said Mackelprang. “So what we do is provide the resources through loans to set them up with the required tools, materials, shop, etc.”
According to an article from Burton Blatt Institute, the inclusive entrepreneurship program has provided training to more than 250 people with disabilities and helped start 60 small businesses, running the gamut from the carpenter and bicycle shops to an orthopedics training and manufacturing center.
The program doesn’t stop there, however. Rather, it continues to school the business owners by providing ongoing education and oversight from business students attending local and U.S. universities. “What we’ve found is that most of these people don’t have great business sense so they’re susceptible to failure,” said Mackelprang. “We connect the students with the entrepreneurial endeavors that will provide full-time work and income for usually four to six people, which is pretty good for Ghana, and as they learn, their businesses become sustainable and even grow.”
While the goal of reducing the reported 90-percent unemployment rate for Ghana’s disabled citizens is of utmost importance to Mackelprang and Shaheen, spreading education throughout Ghana with the help of technology is a major ambition.
“The idea is to set up training co-ops between U.S. universities and centers in Ghana. I’ve taught a joint class to people in Ghana using technology – Skype and webcams – while teaching students in Cheney,” said Mackelprang. “But Eastern has the technology to make it so much cooler.”
The inclusive entrepreneurship program and educational co-ops are ideas that are taking off, with enthusiastic support and involvement from Syracuse University’s Burton Blatt Institute and Martin J. Whitman School of Management. The NGO, Engage Now, is starting a health and technology curriculum in Ghana and is seeking proposals on how the EWU partnership with Syracuse’s schools can assist in the creation and implementation of the program, which can, hopefully, be instituted by October.