Keeping the promise of inclusive education

On the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities we are republishing an edited version of an op-ed by GPE CEO Alice Albright, previously posted on Project Syndicate.

December 03, 2018 by GPE Secretariat
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3 minutes read
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  In the front row, two blind students use Braille machines during class.  Kisiwandui primary school in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
In the front row, two blind students use Braille machines during class. Kisiwandui primary school in Zanzibar, Tanzania.
GPE/Chantal Rigaud

Ali Moussa and Mahmoud are sixth graders in Zanzibar. Both boys are nearly blind and use recording devices and braille machines to read. But, thanks to their school and teacher, they are able to keep pace with their peers in the mainstream primary school that they attend.

Despite the obvious hardship, Ali Moussa and Mahmoud are fortunate that their community has embraced inclusive education – the pedagogical concept that children of all abilities and backgrounds should learn together. In most developing countries, educators don’t even know how many children with disabilities are absent from school, let alone what those who do attend might need in the classroom.

As many as 150 million children live with a disability; in low- and lower-middle-income countries, around 40% are out of school at primary level (rising to 55% at lower secondary level). But data on disabilities are notoriously poor, and the actual numbers might be far higher. For example, recent research by the Global Partnership for Education, found that less than 5% of children with disabilities in 51 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are enrolled in primary school.

Even when children with disabilities do go to school, they are often excluded from learning, because the curriculum is not adapted to their needs, or staff members are not equipped to support them. Many children with disabilities also face stigma, bullying, and violence. Children with intellectual disabilities suffer the most, while girls with disabilities are particularly susceptible to sexual and emotional abuse.

The good news is that it is possible to address these deficiencies, and we can start with a better definition of the issue.

In the literal sense, “inclusive” learning means not segregating children with disabilities into special schools or classrooms. Children with disabilities should learn alongside their peers in “mainstream” settings. To accomplish this, schools must be accessible, teachers trained, and students given access to appropriate learning materials and devices such as corrective lenses, hearing aids, and braille machines.

But inclusivity is not only about removing physical barriers; it also means making deeper, more systemic changes to accommodate all learners – regardless of their physical or intellectual abilities, gender, ethnicity, or language. To reach this level of integration, significant social and cultural reforms are needed to challenge the stigma and discriminatory practices that so often hold children with disabilities back.

For starters, children and adults with disabilities must be included in policy discussions about their learning. When families, teachers, schools, and governments make plans to expand inclusive education, the needs of the students themselves must be heard.

Second, better data are needed to ensure that education planners know precisely how many children with disabilities are out of school, why they are absent, and what barriers to learning they face. Only with a deeper understanding of the challenges can educational exclusion be overcome.

An estimated 90% of children with disabilities in the developing world do not go to school.
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
GPE provides funding and guidance to help developing country partners close the gap in access, participation, and learning for children with disabilities.
Credit: GPE/Alexandra Humme
In Niger, the government's investment in inclusive education is seeing impressive results for students like 18 year old Moussana Belo. Blind since early in life, Moussana now has good friends, is making good grades and hopes to one day become a judge to "help my brothers and sisters."
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
"When these students came here they were shy and quiet," says Moussana's teacher, Anatche Hama, 48, who is also blind. "Now they have much greater self-esteem, and they have faith in themselves. Now they are outgoing, interacting and playing with their classmates and other students in the school."
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
"Being blind is not the end of your life. These students will learn to read and write. They will be integrated into real life. They will succeed," teacher Anatche Hama says.
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
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.
Credit: GPE/Natasha Graham
Chung Lang, a 13-year-old 5th grader lost vision in her right eye due to Vitamin D deficiency. After struggling to see the board in class, she dropped out of school. Now, with a pair of new eye glasses Chung Lang is back in school and says, "I really enjoy reading".
Credit: GPE/Natasha Graham
The Cambodian government has collected data to better understand the needs of children with disabilities and develop policies, like vision screening, to integrate these children into the education system. The out-of-school population was halved between 2007 and 2011 in large part because of these targeted policies and interventions, implemented by the Ministry of Education in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders.
Credit: GPE/Natasha Graham
In Zanzibar, introducing inclusive education and awareness-raising activities is resulting in a positive shift in attitudes towards disabilities in the community. Kisiwandui Primary School welcomes 50 students with a diverse range of disabilities, both learning and physical challenges.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
The school, through paintings on its walls, portrays children with disabilities as eager learners and contributors, thereby challenging deeply held attitudes towards children with disabilities.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
The school, through paintings on its walls, portrays children with disabilities as eager learners and contributors, thereby challenging deeply held attitudes towards children with disabilities.With GPE's support, the government of Zanzibar has helped schools like Kisiwandui Primary School become more inclusive by ensuring availability of quality teaching and learning material such as computers, braille machines and teacher guides. These inclusive education programs have helped mobilize communities and families to engage with children’s development.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
In Nepal, some teachers have developed learning materials to ensure children with mild disabilities can learn and participate in class alongside peers.
Credit: GPE/NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati
Shakuntala Badi is 13 years old and studies in Class 5B at Adarsha Saula Yubak Higher Secondary School, Bhainsipati, Nepal. She is the only blind student in her class.
Credit: ]GPE/NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati
Including children with disabilities into the mainstream education system not only requires government leadership, but also inclusive policies that support availability of infrastructure, learning material as well as teacher support and capacity building.
Credit: GPE/NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati
GPE will continue to support these and all other partner countries to mainstream disability inclusion into education policies and plans, and ensure that all children can realize their full potential, without discrimination.
Credit: GPE/Natasha Graham

And, finally, inclusive education must become part of government planning and budgeting processes. Political leadership will be essential if school systems in developing countries are ever to meet the needs of all students with disabilities.

At GPE, we are working with 67 developing countries to address these challenges; one of our top priorities is ensuring that the needs of children with disabilities are included in education planning, and that those plans are adequately funded. Today, roughly half of GPE’s partner countries have national disability laws, and more than a third have inclusive education policies or are in the process of developing them.

Since 2012, GPE has allocated approximately US$440 million to support inclusive education. Additionally, 30% of our grants are tied to progress on equity, efficiency, and learning outcomes – including for students living with disability.

As students like Ali Moussa and Mahmoud can attest, developing countries have worked hard to give more students with disabilities the opportunity to attend school. But millions of vulnerable young people remain on the margins. We must work across sectors to effect change, and we know that active engagement and advocacy from civil society are essential. Together with governments, educators, donors, and other partners, we can help close the gap and achieve education for all.

Read op-ed on Project Syndicate

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Inclusive education
Sub-Saharan Africa: Tanzania

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