Including the Excluded: Education for children with disabilities
For the past four years, I have worked with colleagues around the world on the Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children – a partnership that examines the reasons children are excluded from education and seeks ways for every child to go to school and learn.
Those of us in this line of work have seen significant progress in the past decades. Tens of millions of children who were excluded in the past now go to school – girls and children in poor and rural communities. However, children with disabilities have been the last to benefit from the progress of the last few years.
I have great hope that this soon will change.
With the new Sustainable Development Goals, our work necessarily will need to focus on children with disabilities. Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals calls for inclusive and quality education for all. Though there is often some misunderstanding about what we mean by inclusive education, the concept is particularly significant for children with disabilities.
The term ‘inclusive education’ simply means that all children, regardless of their background or situation, are welcome in the same schools. Inclusive education means moving away from a system with special schools for children with disabilities and towards a system in which every child, regardless of ability, goes to a mainstream school.
There is still a long way to go. Progress towards inclusive education has lagged when it comes to teacher training, accessible school buildings, and appropriate learning materials. We also still need to improve data collection, a critical tool that allows us to identify children with disabilities and provide them with the services they need to go to school and learn.
The lack of progress on inclusive education is a serious problem. In most low- and middle-income countries, about half of children with disabilities are out of school and, in countries approaching universal enrolment, up to 40 per cent of out-of-school children have a disability.
Estimates suggest that around 5 per cent of children in any country have a severe or moderate disability or learning difficulty. However, household surveys often only identify around 1.5 per cent of children disabilities.
In addition, the vast majority of children with disabilities who are out of school were never enrolled, either because the schools refused to accept them or because of discrimination in their families or communities.
There is some good news in the data: Children with disabilities who do go to school seem to make good progress, and their drop-out rates are actually lower than the rates for the overall population. So, if we do the work to get children with disabilities in school, there is a good chance they will progress.
In the next few months, UNICEF will ramp up efforts to reach children with disabilities with the start of a major programme with education ministries and partners around the world. The programme will build understanding about children with disabilities and develop the ability of education systems to respond.
We also are disseminating reliable and up-to-date data so education ministries can provide appropriate services for children with disabilities. To improve this data, we are developing new ways to access information about children with disabilities. In addition, we are creating guidance for governments so they can analyse their own education sectors.
I truly believe that these efforts will benefit children with disabilities – and us all. For when children with disabilities go to school, they have the chance to become literate and engaged adults who can contribute to the betterment of their families, communities and the world.
Mark Waltham is a senior education advisor at UNICEF