Inclusiveness is a theme of 2018’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities. What kind of progress are we making to ensure that children with disabilities can realise their fundamental right to an education?
Inclusion – the promise to leave no one behind – lies at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Nowhere is the challenge of realizing this promise more urgent than in ensuring inclusive quality education for children with disabilities. All over the world children with disabilities are disproportionately denied their right to an education – about half of them do not go to school. Evidence shows that, without exception, children with disabilities are more likely to be excluded from school than their peers without disabilities. In some countries, this number is four times as likely. Such exclusion has long lasting impacts because education is the gateway to children’s full participation in society – transition into adulthood, opportunities for employment, and engagement with their communities.
Yet, there are strong reasons to hope. Many countries have been steadily making progress in putting in place education laws and policies to support children with disabilities. Data provided by UNICEF shows that in 2017, 88% of 103 programme countries had laws, policies, or national plans to support education for children with disabilities. This was up from 62% in 2013.
There has also been a shift in the attitudes of teachers and school administrations towards enrolling children with disabilities in regular schools. This measure increased from 40% in 2013 to 65% in 2017. A supportive school environment can greatly improve the learning experience for children with disabilities, especially for those with mild or moderate disabilities who can participate in regular school life with little adjustment. In countries like Ghana, which has a comprehensive ‘Inclusive Education Policy’, involving different stakeholders – from children and parents to teachers and administrators – is central to the inclusive approach.
It is clear however that significant challenges persist on the ground. These include support in the physical environment of schools (such as presence of accessible classrooms and toilets), or developing capacity of human resources such as teacher-training or enlisting the support of specialist care. In 2017, for example, only 33% of countries had suitable human resources in schools to effectively support inclusive education.
How can we propel the momentum? The path forward is challenging, but there are three critical factors that must be pushed into the forefront if we are to make inclusive education a reality.
- Firstly, the answer to inclusive education does not lie in building more schools for children with disabilities, which would only serve to isolate them further and is unlikely to be sustainable in the long-run. Instead, sharing resources that already exist in educational systems, between regular and specialized schools, can address a range of challenges. Teachers in regular schools, for example, are often left isolated to deal with children of a wide range of learning abilities with little training or support. Pre-service teacher curriculum thus needs to become more responsive to diverse learning needs, and include modules on inclusive education practices. In addition, calling on existing expertise in specialized schools to support teachers in regular schools, such as in the use of Braille or the support of physical and speech therapists, can be areas to which financial or technical assistance should be directed.
- Schools built on ‘universal design principles’ – a concept and approach to design products, services and environments that can be used by everyone – are essential for creating more accessible school environments. These principles are flexible and adaptable to different contexts, including school projects where examples of their application range from wider doorways and hallways, to proper illumination in classrooms and no-step entry into buildings. According to a World Bank study, universal design requires additional costs of approximately one percent if incorporated from the outset of a project. Not incorporating these principles, on the other hand, can incur high human and opportunity costs due to inaccessibility.
- Once in the classroom, it is vital that children with disabilities have access to learning materials and resources that meet their needs, including textbooks and teaching aids. Champions of disabilities often use the term ‘book famine’ to highlight the lack of textbooks in accessible formats for those with disabilities. In low- and middle-income countries the availability of such resources in regular schools is next to nil, including basic materials that teach the children how to read. And, as the adage goes, ‘if you don’t learn how to read, you can’t read to learn’. Innovative use of technology, however, holds a great deal of promise in this area. UNICEF and partners, for example, are developing Accessible Digital Textbooks for learners with disabilities to make textbooks available and affordable for children in development and humanitarian contexts. Prototypes are being produced, tested and validated in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
For too long children with disabilities have been the last in line to exercise their fundamental right to education. It is time for governments, communities and society to move beyond this recognition, and invest in their right to education in practical and real terms.
Mark Waltham is Senior Adviser, Education Section, UNICEF New York.