First, recognise their fundamental right to education. Second, start counting them.
“The answer is 4!” says Patricia, 10, as she walks confidently to the board to solve a problem during math class. She goes to school in Sandema, Ghana. At first glance, her classroom appears to be like any other, but a closer look reveals some students have mild to moderate disabilities. Patricia has mild cerebral palsy. When she first joined her school at the age of 4, she could hardly hold a pencil. Today she is blossoming under the support offered by her school environment, particularly the school staff. A champion comes in the form of the school’s headmistress, Paulina Adekaldu, who ensured early on that Patricia had the tools to succeed: “When class was over, I would help Patricia learn how to write and hold her pencil. Now she can write and she participates in class like her other classmates.”
Patricia’s story highlights how a supportive environment, which costs little in economic terms, can often be the most critical factor in the education of children with disabilities. Equally, it is the lack of such support that poses the strongest barriers. This may even be the case when family members keep the children away from school for a variety of reasons, including to protect them from discrimination. All of us – families, communities, and policy-makers – must recognize that children with disabilities have a fundamental right to education. When this right is denied, it has repercussions that can last a lifetime – limiting or completely closing off children’s access to learning, future employment, engagement in civic affairs and full participation in society.
Children with disabilities are one of the most marginalized and excluded groups. Although there is severe lack of data, available evidence from a few countries shows that, without exception, children with disabilities are more likely to be excluded from school than their peers without disabilities – in some countries, up to four times more likely. Even when they join school, children with disabilities are less likely to complete primary or secondary education, and inequality grows as the level of education advances. In 2016, a UNICEF analysis of 15 countries revealed that among a number of factors, including income and gender, the role of disability was the most dominant in contributing to whether children attended school or not. Children with disabilities were likelier to have never entered school in the first place. Such findings contain profound implications – not only in terms of unfair educational access, but also in terms of the life choices and opportunities denied to the children.
One of the biggest challenges that persist with children with disabilities is that we know too little about too few of them. In many low- and middle-income countries, particularly, they continue to be the ‘uncounted’. How many are there? How many are out of school? How many have assistive technologies to aid their education? In what manner do their disabilities serve as hindrances to their education? We simply do not know.
The time to change this has come. To meet the challenge of the data gap, UNICEF, in collaboration with the Washington Group on Disability Statistics, has developed a module that enables governments to collect detailed and reliable data on children with disabilities in a way more comprehensive than ever before. This module, launched in 2016, collects information on the actual experiences of children with disabilities, and the various difficulties they encounter in their daily-lived realities. It is already being used in national surveys and censuses in over 20 countries. UNICEF is also in the process of developing an additional tool, specifically aimed at collecting information on the barriers children with disabilities face in accessing their right to education. Both will serve as important tools for monitoring SDG 4 which aims to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable education’ for all.
Progress on inclusive education – although uneven – is being made, and examples can be found in different regions all over the world. In many cases, the inclusion of children with mild or moderate disabilities into mainstream schools can be done with little extra costs and with only minor changes to school infrastructure and teaching practices. Allowing children with vision impairments to sit at the front of classrooms, for example, or making ramps for wheelchair users, can make a world of difference in making schools more accessible.
There are thus workable and effective means which can make ‘inclusive and quality education’ a reality for children with disabilities. But first, we need to see them, and hear them by capturing their voices. Unless children with disabilities are accounted for, inclusive societies cannot be built. And the promise of the SDGs will remain unrealised.
Mark Waltham is Senior Adviser, Education Section, UNICEF New York.