Renee Hepperlen, alumna: Making Inroads to Inclusion

12/15/2020
Renee Hepperlen.

More than 7 percent of Zambia’s children have disabilities, and nearly half have never attended school. Many lack health services and experience isolation and stigma in their communities.

For the last four years, however, Renee Hepperlen (MN-LEND and Disability Policy and Services Certificate, 2011–12) has been part of a multi-disciplinary team working to train local nurses, therapists, and other professionals in infant and child development, early intervention, daily living skills, positive language around disability, and disease prevention.

Hepperlen is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at University of St. Thomas. Partnering with faculty from St. Catherine University and the Catholic Medical Mission Board in Lusaka, Zambia, the team created the training as part of a grant from the GHR Foundation. The work concludes in early summer 2021.

Hepperlen’s contributions have focused on turning around the stigma of disability, which keeps many children isolated, out of school, and therefore unprepared to be contributing members of their communities as adults. Storytelling events in communities, plays featuring parents who discover their child with intellectual disabilities can, indeed, learn, and facilitated church discussion groups were among the projects. Other team efforts centered on assisting families to keep their children with disabilities at home rather than in congregate care and training direct support professionals in appropriate feeding and other daily living skills using available resources.

“The LEND program stressed multi-disciplinary work, and that emphasis has continued throughout my career,” she said. “It creates such a strong connection between skills and attitudes. As we trained future trainers, we were working on hard skills, but also on appreciating self-determination, so they would recognize the value and worth of people with disabilities.”