The challenge of inclusion for children with disabilities

Blue banner with the words Think Education: Facing the learning crisis in eastern and Southern Africa

Despite the fact that the right to education for all is enshrined in myriad national and international treaties, children with disabilities still face challenges in accessing education, being socially included in education and experiencing quality education. In addition to these gaps, there is also a lack of evidence into what works in inclusive education in Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA).

Given the deficiencies in education for children with disabilities, financial and human resource constraints in many countries, and the unclear discourse surrounding the definition and scope of inclusive education, this Think Piece on Disability Inclusion introduces a practical and pragmatic approach to increasing inclusion for both boys and girls with disabilities.

The Wave Model

The authors have used the Wave Model to enhance and accelerate inclusive education programming and as a response to the challenges of continuing exclusion and poor-quality education for children with disabilities. The Wave Model proposes a graduated response in which the child is at the centre. The response starts with the universal (i.e. what was available for all), and then moves towards the targeted (the additional support that children needed to access schooling) and on to the specialist (highly tailored intervention to support children in reaching their potential).

A young girl in midair as she jumps while playing as some children look on.
© UNICEF/UN0158309/BERTIN Philippe CUCURON(Foreground) Ansha, 9, plays with other children in a courtyard outside her home in Matola, a suburb of Maputo, Mozambique. Ansha could neither walk nor talk for a very long time.

The Wave Model starts with a first wave of strategies that focus on mainstream classrooms and are predicated on the understanding that educating children with disabilities can first be done by improving teaching and learning for all children. Generally speaking, there is agreement that effective teaching for children with disabilities is the same as effective teaching for all. Thus, this first wave focuses on the majority consisting of mainstream teachers and aims to dispel the common assumption that teaching boys and girls with disabilities requires extra disability training and skills. To support inclusive education, the role of the classroom teacher is to deliver high quality teaching: doing this will benefit all learners including children with disabilities and children with special needs.

Wave 2 of the model recognizes that children with disabilities have the potential to work at and above the academic level of their peers, but to do so they will need direct intervention which is time-specific. Wave 2 strategies are not to be seen as sequential to Wave 1; rather they run in parallel and are primarily in place to support children in accessing the mainstream quality teaching implemented in Wave 1.

Finally, Wave 3 interventions recognize that some specific complex impairments make it impossible for learners to achieve at the same rate as their non-disabled peers and that, as a result, different provisions are needed. This is where more specialist strategies come into play, albeit for a smaller number of children who have severe disabilities.

A graphic depicting the three waves of the proposed model along with interventions.
© UNICEF ESAROFigure 1: the Wave Model offers inclusive education strategies that can work in parallel.

Figure 1 outlines the Wave Model and also offers inclusive education strategies that can work in parallel. The strategies are not necessarily new. However, they are re-framed in a way that allows government ministries of education to identify what they have already achieved, and what pragmatic steps need to be taken to support all forms of disability. Most education ministries have, in some way, shape or form, implemented strategies found in all three of these waves. However, many inclusive education interventions only focus on highly specialized Wave 3 strategies or attempt to implement targeted Wave 2 strategies without first achieving some of the quick-win Wave 1 actions that make mainstream teaching more inclusive.

Inclusion is not a simple one-size-fits-all intervention that can be implemented in schools, rather it is a response to the population that the school serves and interventions are along a continuum. Many schools are working hard to provide inclusive education; however, they are largely ad hoc and in isolation from each other. The Wave Model proposes, that when policy-makers, planners, schools and communities understand differences within the student population, and adopt a progressive approach, this helps to promote social equity and leads to more inclusive societies.

Dive deeper into this topic:


Emma Sarton is an Education Economist and Monitoring and Evaluation specialist with over 15 years’ experience in the international development and education sector. She has a particular interest in inclusion and literacy, and her strengths are in research, M&E and impact assessment, with an in-depth knowledge of teaching, and learning pedagogy to maximise the quality of learning outcomes.

Mark Smith has worked on school improvement both in the UK and overseas for the last 20 years. In the UK, he has worked for two Local Authorities advising schools in literacy improvement, inclusive education and general school improvement. In sub-Saharan Africa, he has project managed large scale DFID and Comic Relief Funded projects in Reading and Inclusive Education in Ethiopia and been lead consultant to other projects around disability, school improvement and literacy in Ethiopia and Uganda.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with “required.”