Equal Access: Countries Taking Action for Students with Disabilities

By Karen Boeker, AWC Denmark

Education is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of discrimination and poverty that children with disabilities often face. But access to school for children with disabilities is often limited by a lack of understanding about their needs, a lack of trained teachers, classroom support learning resources and facilities.

According to the World Report on Disability, approximately 15% of the world's population lives with some kind of disability, with at least 1 in 10 being children and 80% living in developing countries. Children with disabilities are less likely to start school and if they do, they are unlikely to transition to secondary schools. 

“Denying children with disabilities their right to education has a lifelong impact on learning, achievement and employment opportunities, hence hindering their potential economic, social and human development….To ensure that all children enjoy their basic human rights without discrimination, disability inclusion should be mainstreamed in all policies and plans. This applies to education systems, which need to promote inclusion by ensuring the presence, participation and achievement of all children, including children with disabilities.”1

School education not only serves to educate children, but also helps and cares for their families and helps to change society effectively and long-term in a positive way. Here are a examples of countries that are working to do just that. 

Senegal: Including Children with Disabilities Transforms Communities

A pilot project enabling blind and visually impaired children in Senegal to attend mainstream schools has led to a breakthrough in the government’s commitment to introduce inclusive education throughout the country. The program’s first cohort of blind and visually impaired children took their end of primary exams in July 2016, with the majority passing the requirements to continue to secondary education. 

As an additional positive side-effect: fully sighted children in integrated classes are consistently achieving better exam results than those in non-inclusive classes in the schools involved. Those working on the program say this may be due to the social-impact of the buddy scheme as well as the fact that more time is being spent on lessons.

Eritrea: All Children Can Learn

This is the slogan of an inclusive classroom in Daerit Elementary School in Asmara, led by the government of Eritrea and established in January 2015, that welcomes up to 40 children with disabilities. The program can enroll children with a wide range of special needs, from children with autism and Down syndrome to children with hearing and sight impairments, irrespective of age or impairment. The lessons from this model classroom will be used to expand the program to other schools.

Eritrea faces many challenges in the education sector, but the country’s commitment to the education of its most vulnerable children is inspiring. Education is viewed as the cornerstone of national development in Eritrea. The 2010 National Education Policy states: “Our education system aspires to produce all round citizens along with a firm commitment to country, people and social justice. This aspiration includes the development of creative and productive individuals who are capable of contributing towards the attainment of a modern, competitive, harmonious and self-reliant Eritrea.”

There are currently three special elementary schools accepting children with disabilities: two for the deaf and one for the blind. They are boarding schools located in Asmara and Keren, both of which are urban towns. The two schools for the deaf are run by religious organizations, while the school for the blind is run by the government.

Data from 2012-2013 indicate that total enrollment in these schools is 183 students, of which 74 are girls. This is far from sufficient to serve the more than 3,000 children with these disabilities. Hence a large number of deaf and blind children have remained out of school. There is very little data available on the other forms of disabilities.

The Eritrean ministry of education developed an education sector plan in 2012 that included both short-term and long-term goals for inclusive education. Short-term interventions focus on providing access to school to disabled children by improving learning conditions in schools through building additional classrooms and providing equipment to accommodate children with special needs. As a concrete example, this includes a plan to expand Keren School for the deaf to welcome an additional 80 children. Classrooms will have specialized teaching and learning materials; training will be provided to 50 teachers, and supervisors and directors will also get training on special needs education and sensitive pedagogy.

Eritrea faces many challenges in the education sector, but the country’s commitment to the education of its most vulnerable children is promising.

Zanzibar: Creating a Culture of Inclusion

Around the world one of the key barriers that people with disabilities face is the negative attitudes toward them, including a lack of awareness of their rights and needs. Stigma, discrimination, segregation, isolation and negative perception are all too common.

In Zanzibar, the introduction of inclusive education and awareness-raising activities conducted by the ministry of education and civil society seem to have resulted in a positive shift in attitudes of parents, teachers and the community. Linking schools to the communities and tapping into community resources is no easy task, but it’s crucial for changing attitudes and beliefs. Today, 28% of Zanzibar’s 426 schools offer inclusive education.

Hundreds of teachers have been trained on guidance and counseling, detection of special needs, classroom skills for inclusion and handling cases of child marriage and early pregnancies. Over 250,000 books for inclusive education have been distributed to schools and children have received glasses and hearing aids when needed.

It would be easy if inclusive education simply required these kinds of activities to make the education system more responsive to a diverse student population. While the right equipment, trained teachers, diversified assessment systems so that children with different skills and abilities can be tested are important – these activities are not enough. Giving excluded children and those with disabilities education opportunities also requires a robust data system, coordinated action outside of the education sector, and changing attitudes and beliefs towards people with disabilities. In Zanzibar, data from 2008 indicated that the literacy rate of disabled persons was 52%, compared to 75% among those without disability. The net enrollment rate among children with disabilities was 38% compared to 74% for children without disabilities. 

Equal Access: The Time is Now for Students with Disabilities

For too long education systems have served those who fit readily into it, neglecting those who seemed unable to be educated or categorizing them as at least unable to be educated with everyone else. That means entire generations of young people have been excluded from education, and societies have not benefited from their dynamism, creativity and intelligence.

Inclusive education policies and programs can help mobilize communities and families to engage with children’s early educational development and should recognize that all children can learn, have a right to learn and learn differently. 

A strong focus on inclusion in the early years can go a long way to ensure early detection and intervention. Play, early stimulation, self-help and life skills need to be recognized as equally important as numeracy and literacy skills. Also, inclusive education policies can help ensure that teacher training programs have embedded inclusive education. Teachers need to be familiarized with the existence of support services for students with disabilities and should be given plenty of opportunities for practical learning about inclusion.

Be reminded of UN SDG goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all.”4 Learning from Zanzibar’s experience shows that collaborating and seeking partnerships within and outside of the education sector can contribute to giving all children a brighter future. 







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