Right to education for tens of millions of children denied

Children with disabilities are, more often than not, excluded from society, forgotten by governments and international aid programs, and – for a long time – denied their right to an education. Their “disabled status” has a bigger impact on their chances of receiving an education than their gender, location or household. 

It is estimated that half of the 65 million children who are out of school are children with disabilities (Education Commission, 2016). The children with disabilities who are in school, many in segregated settings, seldom receive an education that would ensure development to their fullest potential and inclusion in society.

After some time, the stars on the global stage are now politically aligned paving the way for the realization of the right to education for these children. Through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have a disability-inclusive agenda with an underpinning principle to “leave no-one behind.” Furthermore, the new general comment on Article 24 (Inclusive education) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UN CRPD) clarifies some of the misunderstandings that have hindered implementation.

In the decade of the UNCRPD’s existence, we have seen governments taking greater responsibility for the education of children with disabilities through policies moving away from special education and toward inclusive education. However, the policies and plans on paper have seldom translated into practice. Too often, governments and donors are ring-fencing small allocations for “special” education/special needs learners and neglecting to invest in much-needed system-wide reforms.

The failure to reach children with disabilities is one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals on Education, which promise to ensure “inclusive and equitable quality education” for all by 2030. 

The last frontier in this long struggle to realize the right to education for children with disabilities is securing the resources needed to affect real change on the ground.

Investment needs to take a twin track approach which involves financing system-wide reforms to legislation, policy, financing, planning and implementation, and supporting the specific needs of learners with disabilities via rehabilitation services, assistive devices and teacher education in inclusive education and disability specific accommodations/skills. This view aligns with that of the Education Commission’s Learning Generation report arguing for both expanded education financing and reforms to deliver meaningful return on investment. 

One such transformation identified by the Commission is that of inclusion targeting efforts and resources at those at risk of not learning. Inclusive education for children with disabilities is barely on the radar of most national decision-makers who wrongly believe this is not a priority investment area, or that it will offer few dividends. To the contrary, evidence from Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal and the Philippines shows that the returns on investing in education for people with disabilities are two to three times higher than that of persons without disabilities (1. Lamichhane, 2014). In Bangladesh, the World Bank estimates that US$1.2 billion annually, or 1.74% of GDP of income, could be lost due to a lack of schooling and employment of people with disabilities and their caregivers. More evidence is found in a study across 13 low and middle-income countries which proved that education can narrow the poverty gap between persons with and without disabilities, as every year of schooling for a person with disabilities reduces the chances that his/her household belongs to the poorest two quintiles by 2-5% (2. Filmer, 2008).

A girl with a disability, who is also an orphan living in a rural area, experiences multiple layers of disadvantage. These diverse inequities and the multiplying effects thereof – experienced by many children living in low and middle-income countries – all need to be addressed. This poses a complex task for governments and donors. Moreover, such a challenge requires targeted resources and the co-operation of those working to address other inequities (e.g. rural development, girl’s education, orphans, etc.) to actively reach out and include persons with disabilities.

Donors need to do more

External funding will continue to be an important source of financing for low-income countries. The global decline in aid to education is a huge problem as children with disabilities are constantly left at the very back of the queue when there are competing demands. The barriers standing in the way of children with disabilities going to school and learning – inadequate school facilities, poorly trained teachers and a lack of accessible learning materials – therefore persist. The trend of declining aid to education must be reversed. 

A review of nine leading bilateral and multilateral education donors found emerging commitments to fund disability-inclusive education, but these were nowhere near the levels needed to address a problem of this scale. Generally, policies are in place, but these rarely reach all levels of the organization and none of the donors could show a portfolio-wide approach to inclusive education. In terms of a portfolio-wide approach, the authors would like to see all educational TV programs with sign-language interpretation. 

Other than NORAD, donors were unable to provide budget allocations to disability-inclusive education.

Domestic financing demands

Governments should adopt disability-responsive budgeting and focus more strongly on quality measures such as improving teacher education, as well as developing funding formulae that take into account the higher costs associated with including learners with additional needs. The concept of progressive universalism – expanding provision for all while prioritizing the needs of the poor and disadvantaged – was cited in the Learning Generation report and provides a “guiding principle to inform spending decisions, recognizing the scarcity of public funding.”

As it stands, the lack of data is generally flagged as the culprit for slow progress.  Accurate disaggregated data is useful for planning, budgeting and tracking. However, the absence of such data is no longer an excuse for poor action. Governments need to take deliberate steps, reinforced by the international community, to collect data on the number of children with disabilities disaggregated by disability-type and other demographic markers, as well as data on environmental barriers. The Washington Group/UNICEF child module and Inclusive Education Management Information system guides are there to be implemented, but this needs substantial investments in capacity building. We also need to invest in rigorous evaluations in order to build up an evidence base of effective approaches that improve learning outcomes for students with disabilities and develop quality, disability-responsive inclusive education systems.

Private development assistance from charitable, religious and private sector grants is an external funding source which is growing faster than overseas development assistance (ODA). With appropriate guidance, private funding could play a catalytic role in disability-inclusive education –especially in the areas of advocacy, building data and evidence.

No cost solutions

Surprisingly, more money is not always the solution. Using existing resources smartly and re-prioritizing areas can be a big game-changer. For example, the content of already planned and budgeted teacher training can be strengthened by insisting that inclusive pedagogies and approaches are prioritized. Public demonstrations of political will and commitment to this issue can also play a significant role in tackling stigma, removing attitudinal barriers and encouraging teachers in their work. One of our most promising inclusive education programs is in Burkina Faso, thanks in no small part to the smooth partnerships among all stakeholder and to the supportiveness of the chief of Garango, who has a son with intellectual disability. 

Participation promotes accountability

Holding governments accountable, as the Education Commission report recommends, requires active and strategic civil society participation and advocacy. In Malawi, the Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education has a long history of tracking education spending, including by conducting questionnaires with teachers and officials at the community level. This has helped to increase funds to education for children with disabilities. 

Similarly, the Vietnam Coalition for Education for All (VCEFA) has raised issues around discriminatory practices in the recruitment of deaf teachers, the lack of funding support for inclusive education, and the need to establish a specific department on inclusive education. All of the Coalition’s recommendations are now being taken up.

Inclusivity is not always practiced in education planning and monitoring processes. Disabled People Organizations (DPOs) and organizations working in disability-inclusive education must be fully engaged and represented at the heart of education planning and monitoring processes as stakeholders and technical experts. Strengthening the technical know-how of DPOs in this field, and then supporting them to do more sophisticated advocacy, is crucial as we need to move away from the tokenistic engagement that we too often see.

The Power of Partnerships

Governments, together with the world’s leading donors and financers, could help send tens of millions of children to school if they begin prioritizing disability-inclusive education issues and actively engaging in partnerships to bridge information, capacity and resource gaps.

The Global Partnership for Education, as a convenor of some of the largest bilateral and private donors to education worldwide, has the potential to take forward and incubate many of the recommendations made within the #CostingEquity report. The GPE should develop a new financing window and facility for disability-inclusive education to grow and attract additional financing and ensure that donor resources are better targeted to disability-inclusive education. They could also provide technical support to countries, innovation grants as well as large-scale evidence generation.

If we want to accomplish real impact come 2030, with no one left behind, we need to forge strategic partnerships. Disability is a minority issue and the only way to have our voices heard is by joining forces as an education and human rights movement to advocate for increased financing for inclusive education for children with disabilities. The International Disability and Development Consortium’s inclusive education task group, comprised of technical experts from 23 international NGOs and DPOs which contributed to the #CostingEquity Report, have done this, albeit only to a degree. However, we need our leaders to join forces, speak out and take action. The disability-inclusive education movement needs high-level champion, such as a head of state or a global celebrity, to bring attention to the tens of millions of children with disabilities whose right to education is subject to ongoing violations. We need a Rihanna or First Lady to give our cause the traction enjoyed by girls’ education or education in emergencies. 

We hereby extend an invitation to organizations and influencers to get in touch with us and partner with us to boost investment in inclusive education for children with disabilities.

Nafisa Baboo  is the Co-chair of IDDC Inclusive Education Task group /Senior Advisor on Inclusive Education of LIGHT FOR THE WORLD. Rupert Roniger is the CEO of LIGHT FOR THE WORLD.

  1. Lamichhane, K. (2014). Disability, Education and Employment in Developing Countries: From Charity to Investment. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Filmer, D (2008) ‘Disability, poverty, and schooling in developing countries: Results from 14 household surveys’, The World Bank Economic Review, 22(1): 141–163