by Brent Harlow
The backdrop for many of the studies covered in this series (which looks at the best research to date on what works in education in the developing world) is the remarkable progress toward universal education that has been made in the developing world over the last three decades. Studies discussed in these posts have taken this progress as a common point of departure, and asked why this or that group— girls, the very poor, indigenous children, or children rural or war-torn areas— has not benefited equally from the revolution in education, and why these groups continue to have lower enrollment, attendance, and learning outcomes than their peers in the developing world.
I have yet to mention in these posts, however, the group which has been most left behind and excluded from the benefits of recent policies designed to achieve universal education. Disability is responsible for a thirty percent attendance gap, making it more significant than the sex, socioeconomic status, or location of residence when it comes to school participation (1). Indeed, out of the 58 million children of primary school age who are currently out of school, it is estimated that one-third has a disability of some kind (2). And if you are one of the 65 million school-aged children in the developing world with a disability today, you have a fifty percent chance of currently being out of school (3). And if you are a primary-school-aged child with a disability, you have an eighty-five percent chance of having never attended school at all (4).
While there are many factors responsible for keeping children with disabilities out of school— some dealing with non-school factors such as societal and familial beliefs about and attitudes toward disability— there are nonetheless a number of crucial factors stemming from the way in which school systems have been imagined and constructed over the last several decades throughout the developing world. Massive, state-led efforts to build public primary school systems simply did not take into account the special accommodations that students with physical and intellectual disabilities would need in order to reap the benefits of state-guaranteed “universal” primary education. Without these accommodations— whether in terms of school construction, curriculum design, teacher training, or the provision of assistive technologies— students with special needs have been left behind, i.e. kept at home or sent to segregated care education and care settings where they do not have access to the full curriculum and wide range of school experiences of their non-disabled peers.
It is only quite recently that researchers, policy-makers and advocacy groups have begun to speak out against this situation and call for greater efforts to integrate children with disabilities into the public education systems of developing countries. They have pointed out that it is in these countries’ economic interest to pursue a more inclusive education policy, given that an estimated 785 to 975 million persons with disability of working age are not currently working, and that disability is currently responsible for between 1.4 and 1.9 billion dollars in lost GDP (5). Researchers have argued that there are tremendous costs associated with not sending kids with disabilities to school, and instead putting the burden of care on families or relying on much more costly care facilities. But greater still is the cost of failing to provide these children with the basic skills, training, and personal development needed to become more productive and self-sustaining members of their societies throughout adulthood.
Research shows that more investment in the development of children with disabilities simply makes good economic sense. Since most brain development occurs by age three, early screening is needed to identify students with special needs and place them on individualized education plans designed to help them as early as possible and provide them with the resources they need to reach their full potential (6). In most cases, these accommodations and resources would be relatively inexpensive and, when coupled with teacher training, not difficult to implement. Such an approach is more cost-effective than the alternative, and results in high returns on investment (education dollars spent on students with disability have higher rates of ROI than those spent on their non-disabled peers) (7).
Increasingly, however, research, advocacy, and development organizations the world over are framing this issue not only in economic, but also— and primarily— in human rights terms. Since 2006, 177 countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which, in Article 24, recognizes “the right of persons with disabilities to education” without “discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity,” in order to ensure the “full development of (their) human potential and sense of dignity and self-worth,” and the “development… of their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential.” The text goes on to state that all reasonable, individualized accommodations shall be made to ensure that children with disabilities have equal access to the free and compulsory primary and the secondary education systems of their countries.
More recently, in 2015, the UN affirmed its commitment to improving access to education for children with disabilities when, in the drafting of its Sustainable Development Goals, it made specific mention of disability in the language of the fourth SDG, namely to achieve “inclusive and equitable quality education for all… and for vulnerable populations, including persons with disabilities, indigenous people, refugee children and poor children in rural areas.”
While more research needs to be done on the effectiveness of different strategies designed to make schools more inclusive and accommodating of a wider range of abilities, there are a number of positive steps that could be taken based on what we know already. In a UNICEF position paper published in 2012 entitled “The Right of Children with Disabilities to Education: A Rights-Based Approach” (link below), several recommendations are made. The authors argue that large, structural changes need to be made, but more relevant to this discussion are their recommendations for new approaches to teaching and learning in the classroom. They promote “active, participatory and child-centered learning and teaching methods to allow children to work at an appropriate pace” in integrated classroom environments. They argue for the adoption of a “curriculum to enable all children to acquire the core academic curriculum and basic cognitive skills, together with essential life skills.” And they encourage the “creative use of assistive technology to make it easier for students with disabilities to learn, including physical resources, computers, and the use of ICTs” (105).
Another recent report, entitled “Costing Equity: The Case for Disability-Responsive Education Financing” (link below) emphasizes the importance of combatting prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes toward disability in the school, as well as providing students with teacher aids and a more individualized and remedial instruction for learners who are behind grade level (16).
Two programs in particular are mentioned in a recent World Bank Blog posting (8), and illustrate the sorts of measures that can be taken now to improve access and quality of education for children with disabilities. The first is the Bulgaria Social Inclusion Project, which seeks to provide children who are marginalized or who have disabilities to get enrolled in school and in social, health and childcare services at a very young age. The program allows for such children to be enrolled in kindergarten and the screened and monitored for learning disabilities early on, thus investing in these children’s education precisely at the moment when it can have the most impact. The program is estimated to have benefited over 1700 children. Such screening, enrollment, and monitoring campaigns must be accompanied programs designed to train teachers on how to more effectively provide support to children with special needs in an integrated classroom setting. The Japan Social Development Fund has helped finance the Malawi Inclusive Education for Disabled Children Project, which not only employs “innovative methods to raise enrollment,” but has also trained “630 teachers on inclusive education,” and has provided “hands-on support in 30 schools.”
In the absence of an adequate government response in most developing countries, analysts insist on the crucial role of nongovernmental actors in innovating, introducing and evaluating programs designed to deliver a more inclusive, higher-quality educational experience to children with disabilities. Givology donors have supported one program in particular which, while not targeting students with learning disabilities in particular, is— in its very design— inclusive and open to students with a variety of learning needs and abilities. Aid India’s Eureka Superkidz program is an after-school program that provides special instruction to children who test significantly below their peers and need extra help in acquiring basic skills in Tamil, math, and English. Children in the program are provided with tutors who have been specially trained in how to deliver the entertaining, interactive, and visually engaging curriculum, and how to customize instruction to meet the learner where he or she is at in terms of skill development. Tutors then design progress plans for students to meet monthly benchmarks which are displayed on an attractive chart that allows tutor and student alike to measure their progress.
Such programs model the principles of inclusiveness, multi-sensory instruction, and individualization that make education more accessible to children with a variety of learning abilities, and represent a positive step toward improving educational opportunity for children with such disabilities.
1) “[url=https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/IWP3%20-%20Towards%20Inclusive%20Education.pdf]Toward Inclusive Education: The Impact of Disability on School Attendance in Developing Countries,[/url]” p 6, 26.
2) [url=http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2015/12/03/making-quality-education-accessible-to-children-with-disabilities.]“Making Quality Education Accessible to Children with Disabilities,” on the World Bank Blog.[/url]
3) [url=http://disabilityrightsfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/iddc-report-short_16-10-17.pdf]“Costing Equity:The case for disability-responsive education financing,[/url]" p. 10.
4) “[url=https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/IWP3%20-%20Towards%20Inclusive%20Education.pdf]Toward Inclusive Education: The Impact of Disability on School Attendance in Developing Countries[/url],” p. 6-7.
5) “[url=https://www.unicef.org/disabilities/files/UNICEF_Right_to_Education_Children_Disabilities_En_Web.pdf]The Rights of Children with Disabilities to Education: A Rights-Based Approach.[/url]”
6) “[url=https://www.unicef.org/disabilities/files/UNICEF_Right_to_Education_Children_Disabilities_En_Web.pdf]The Rights of Children with Disabilities to Education: A rights-based approach[/url],” p. 52.
7) [url=http://disabilityrightsfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/iddc-report-short_16-10-17.pdf]“Costing Equity: The Case for Disability-Responsive Education Financing,[/url]” p. 10.
8) [url=http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2015/12/03/making-quality-education-accessible-to-children-with-disabilities.]“Making Quality Education Accessible to Children with Disabilities”[/url]
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