Children with disabilities face the longest road to education

On December 3rd, we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities

A boy with a physical disability is writing in his class. Primary school, Cambodia. Credit: GPE/Natasha Graham

In developing countries, some children face more barriers than others to accessing education: children who are from poor families or live in remote areas, children from ethnic minorities, girls. 

Children with disabilities face all these barriers and more, especially if they combine several of these characteristics.

In other words, a girl with a disability living in a poor rural village in a developing country has almost no chance to be educated.

An invisible crowd

UNICEF estimates that 90% of children with disabilities in the developing world do not go to school. That’s 9 children out of 10!

The World Report on Disability estimates that there is one billion people living with a disability in the world, out of which 10% are children.

Children with disabilities are often overlooked in humanitarian action and become even more marginalized as fewer resources are available in the midst of a crisis.

Countries overlook them, because few of them collect data on children with disabilities.  And even when countries know about them, most don’t know how to include them in their education systems.

Who are the children with disabilities?

The term “disability” encompasses a wide range of situations, from minor disabilities, like diminished vision or hearing, to severe disabilities, such as inability to move around or brain dysfunctions.

There are three broad categories:

  1. Children with disabilities who are not enrolled in school but who could participate if schools had the capacity in terms of knowledge, skills and equipment to respond to their specific needs. An example of this is a school that has no ramp for a child in a wheelchair, or a classroom that doesn’t have books in braille for a blind student.
  2. Children with disabilities enrolled in school but excluded from learning because the curriculum has not been adapted to their needs, teachers do not have the capacity or time to make the necessary adaptations, and/or they do not have access to assistive devices necessary for their learning needs. An example is children with poor vision who can’t learn because they are unable to see what the teacher writes on the blackboard or they can’t read what’s in their textbooks.
  3. Children with severe disabilities who require specialized support, whether in school or outside of school. This group is relatively small and represents only 2 to 3% of all children with disabilities. An example would be a child with multiple disabilities (like deafness and muteness) or a child with a heavy mental disability that requires a different sort of learning.

Education is a right for ALL children

Education is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of discrimination and poverty that children with disabilities often face.

However, children with disabilities are less likely to start school and if they do, they are unlikely to transition to secondary school.

Their access to school is often limited by stigma, lack of understanding of their needs, lack of teacher training, unconducive school environment, lack of classroom support and learning resources.

But 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.

GPE promotes inclusive education

Like the Global Goal for education, GPE’s vision is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

GPE wants to ensure that all children enjoy their basic human rights without discrimination, and to do so, promotes inclusive education so that disability inclusion is mainstreamed in all education policies and plans.

GPE provides  funding and guidance to help developing country partners develop and implement robust education sector plans that include strategies to include marginalized children. The plans should propose solutions to close the gap in access, participation and learning that children with disabilities face.

In partnership with UNICEF and the World Bank, GPE is developing guidelines on inclusive education.

The guidelines will include strategies to ensure that marginalized children, including children with disabilities, can exercise their right to education.

GPE partners are leading the way

There are already some great examples of inclusive education in GPE partner countries.

In Eritrea, the government is piloting a program to enroll disabled children in school and learn from it before scaling up to the rest of the education system.

In Zanzibar, introducing inclusive education and awareness-raising activities is resulting in a positive shift in attitudes towards disabilities.

In Cambodia, the government is screening children to detect those with vision problems and give them eyeglasses, ensuring they can continue to stay in school and learn.

In Nepal, some teachers have developed special learning materials to ensure children with mild disabilities can participate in class alongside other students.

GPE will continue to support these and all other partner countries to give all children, including children with disabilities, access to a good quality education so they can develop to their full potential.


The Global Partnership for Education Secretariat is headquartered in Washington DC and has approximately 100 staff. The Secretariat provides administrative and operational support to all its partners including...

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