I attended the launch of the first ever World Report on Disability last week, produced jointly by WHO and the World Bank, which suggests more than one billion people, including many children, are disabled.
Both this overpowering number – 1 billion or 15% of the world’s people– and the publication of this report (5 years in the making) represent a victory but mixed with devastation and a feeling of deep sorrow.
Despite recent successes, the fact is that most aid donors continue funding projects that exclude people with disabilities. In the education sector, this translates into literally barring millions of disabled children from school.
People with disabilities have been systematically barred from education and employment, denied health care, and basic human rights. Only a handfull of donors – such as AusAid and Finnish Development Aid – practice and support inclusive development.AusAID, for example, has changed how it designs and delivers its aid program by empowering and enabling people with disability to participate and contribute, and supporting partner governments to meet the needs of all their citizens, and addressing barriers to opportunities such as education.
However, this is an isolated initiative and, to this day, including children with disabilities in school has to be fought for.
Research proves that mainstreaming children with disabilities into schools promotes universal primary completion, is cost effective, and contributes to the elimination of discrimination. Yet every day new non-accessible schools are built. And even when new schools are more accessible — usually the physical barriers are addressed– the inclusion of children with disabilities in education requires overcoming multiple other barriers. In addition to school interventions, a number of system-wide actions are necessary – legislation, policy planning, and funding– to provide additional support, build teacher capacity, remove physical barriers, and overcome negative attitudes. Add to this the important role that communities and families play in the lives of children with disabilities.
Mix it all together, and it gets complex. Overwhelmingly complex.
In the few years I have spent working on education of children with disabilities – first at the World Bank, then the OECD on the issues of data collection, and now at EFA-FTI Secretariat, I have seen and been part of the many ups and downs, successes and disappointments the disability field faces. To date, the inclusion of children with disabilities in education in developing countries has been supported by very few – few individuals, a couple of donors, a few small initiatives. Things are happening and moving, but not at the rate is needed.
What will it mean for the 1 billion excluded? What will it mean for the children excluded from education? Will the complexity of the issue be left only to a few donors and activists?
As I was coming back to Washington, riding on a speedy train, my mind was filled with good news and bad news, hope and desperation. Will this new report be a wake-up call or a cry for help? Will this report serve as a fast-track, a win-over, a much needed, well-documented official formality to make the argument for the excluded 1 billion people, including the millions of disabled children excluded from school?