Students pose for a photograph inside their classroom at a government primary school in Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo by: UNICEF/UNI159600/Singh

When you think of a typical school, do you envisage any children with disabilities? Are the school facilities accessible to all students and the learning materials adapted to everyone’s needs? Is the teacher trained on how to use them?

Devex’s Development Enabled series

Development Enabled explores the daily challenges of people with disabilities, while looking at solutions on how to support a disability-inclusive world.

These questions only hint at the complexities involved in planning for disability-inclusive education — a global imperative in response to children with disabilities being one of the most marginalized groups in education.

There are between 93-150 million children living with a disability, according to the World Health Organization’s 2011 World Disability Report. In low- and middle-income countries, the 2016 Learning Generation report estimates that as many as 33 million children with disabilities are out of school. Stigma and discrimination combined with a lack of data — making them hard to reach — compounds the problem.

Disability-inclusive education is a strong entry point into the broader concept of inclusive education, which UNESCO defines as the process of reaching out to all learners by addressing all forms of exclusion and marginalization; disparities; and inequalities in access, participation, and learning outcomes.

“More and more governments now recognize the important benefits of disability-inclusive education for all members of society.”

— Suzanne Grant Lewis, director, UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning

For children with disabilities, this does not just mean enrolment into a mainstream school. All facets of the education system must be addressed so that it can equally respond to the diverse needs of all its learners. There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer. Every country needs to formulate its own set of solutions that reach down to the level of individual schools.

There are some overarching ideas to consider when planning for disability-inclusive education, however. Here are five:

1. Acknowledge that inclusive education is a human right

Inclusive education — and more specifically disability-inclusive education — is a human right. In fact, 177 countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which calls for the integration of people with disabilities in societies, including in education. The Sustainable Development Goals further recognize the crucial role of inclusive and equitable quality education in building a better, more equal world.

2. Encourage a system-wide approach

Inclusive education requires an inclusive approach. This means looking holistically from administration and management down to what happens inside and outside the school. This includes looking at pedagogy and assessments, financial and human resources, as well as less tangible issues such as attitudes and norms. At the same time, other causes of marginalization cannot be ignored, including gender, location, ethnicity, language, displacement, and security.

A cross-sectoral approach is required as children with disabilities may also encounter constraints related to health and transport, for example. As highlighted in a 2018 technical round table on disability-inclusive education, hosted by UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning and UNICEF, an effective response therefore requires the participation of the community-at-large, development partners, persons with disabilities, parents, and other ministries. This kind of collaboration is taking place in a range of countries including Cambodia, Ethiopia, Fiji, Ghana, Nepal, South Africa, Vietnam, and others.

3. Promote meaningful data collection to reach the invisible

A lack of quality data on children with disabilities makes it nearly impossible to both locate out-of-school children and ensure that those in school are receiving the support needed to succeed. Both national governments and development partners are playing an increasingly important role in encouraging the collection of information on disabilities through household surveys and education management information systems. The Washington Group on Disability Statistics and UNICEF have also enabled a shift in focus from medical categorizations of disability to a focus on the types of difficulties a child may have in the classroom.

Equally important is data collection that addresses the school environment, such as physical accessibility to schools, information on inclusive policies and rights, learning materials, teacher training, and the availability of support specialists in schools.

4. Remember that implementation is what really counts

Foundations of disability-inclusive education sector planning: New online course from IIEP-UNESCO and UNICEF

Starting October 2019, ministries of education can register for a new course on planning for disability-inclusive education. The first course, lasting 6-8 weeks, will focus on eastern and southern anglophone Africa. Ministries will be invited to present teams of 4-6 members. Stay in touch with IIEP-UNESCO for updates.

We know that genuine inclusive education requires a broad systemic rethinking of education systems and school cultures. However, the ultimate test will come in how countries develop, implement, and monitor inclusive policies and plans.

There is also a growing consensus among development partners on the need for action to address inclusive education and to go beyond policy advocacy to actual implementation. On this front, IIEP-UNESCO is working with a broad group of partners — including the GLAD network, and UNICEF in particular — to help address planning issues through the development of regional training courses around planning for inclusive education.

5. Think of inclusive education not as a challenge, but an opportunity

More and more governments now recognize the important benefits of disability-inclusive education for all members of society. Not only does it open doors for children who were once excluded, it is more cost-effective than special needs schools that only reach small populations, promotes social cohesion, and enables all children and youth to appreciate diversity.

Many countries are still in the early stages of planning for this, but the round table this past July brought several examples of progress to the forefront including an inclusive education policy in Ghana, robust data collection in Fiji, and an enhanced budget for inclusive education in Cambodia’s new education sector plan.

Let us share these success stories as we continue toward 2030. And, as reflected in UNESCO’s guide for ensuring inclusion and equity in education, let us not see individual differences as “problems to be fixed,” but as opportunities for “democratizing and enriching learning” for all.

For more coverage on creating a disability-inclusive world, visit the Development Enabled series here.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Suzanne Grant Lewis

    Suzanne Grant Lewis is the director of UNESCO's International Institute for Educational Planning. She provides strategic vision and leadership for the Institute’s three offices in Paris, Dakar, and Buenos Aires. She has over 25 years of experience in improving educational opportunities in the developing world, particularly in education policy and planning in Africa.