In June 1994, representatives of 92 governments and 25 international organizations met in Salamanca, Spain, for the World Conference on Special Needs Education. Co-organized by UNESCO and the Government of Spain, the Salamanca Conference reaffirmed the right to education of every individual and renewed the pledge made at the 1990 World Conference on Education for All. The Salamanca Framework for Action adopted the principle that ordinary schools should accommodate all children, regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic or other conditions.
Exactly 20 years later, the Global Partnership for Education will hold its Second Replenishment Pledging Conference in Brussels, Belgium. Hosted by the European Union, the conference will include a side-event on “Inclusive education for children with disabilities.” As we approach the deadline for the Millennium Development Goal to “ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling”, the GPE Replenishment Conference is an opportunity to take stock of progress made since Salamanca.
Globally, 57 million children remain out of school. Millions of these children have a disability. Without them, Education for All is not achievable.
Policies for inclusive education are insufficient
In the intervening years, a multitude of reports and documents have provided guidelines for policy and practice on inclusive education and analyzed progress and challenges. For instance, in 2007, World Vision UK, with funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), published a report entitled, “Education’s Missing Millions: Including Disabled Children in Education through EFA FTI processes and National Sector Plans” (from which I have borrowed the title to this blog).
The report analyzed education sector plans in 28 countries implemented with support from the Education for All Fast Track Initiative (which became the Global Partnership for Education in 2011), to examine how well they included children with disabilities.
The report concluded that policies and provision for disabled children remain cursory or have not been implemented.
Key gaps identified included lack of data; insufficient planning across the range of measures required to improve provision; few financial projections of costs or use of funding mechanisms and incentives to support inclusion; limited approaches to partnerships with parents, communities and non-governmental organizations; and weak inter-ministry links.
We need to tackle the bottlenecks that keep children with disabilities out of school
The conclusions from the Education’s Missing Millions report remain true today: very few developing countries have managed to move from policy to large-scale practice in terms of equitable access to quality education for children with disabilities. There are many bottlenecks and constraints: cultural practices that stigmatize people with disabilities continue to keep children away from schools, schools are inaccessible for children with mobility challenges both in terms of buildings and surrounding terrain, and millions of teachers lack adequate training and support to recognize and respond to the individual learning needs of their students—let alone those who have special needs.
The arguments against inclusive education for children with disabilities I’ve heard over the past two decades are many: “these children require something that regular schools and teachers cannot provide”; “it is too costly to develop special schools and classrooms when systems cannot even address the needs of ‘normal’ children”, and so on.
Lessons not to learn
Lena Saleh, who led UNESCO’s work on disability at the time of Salamanca, once told a group we had gathered for an inclusive education workshop in Ethiopia that Africa has a unique opportunity not to embark on the costly and inefficient road to inclusion that Europe took, but to learn from it and take a more direct route by bypassing the establishment of costly, separate services for children with disabilities.
If teachers are trained, empowered and supported to respond to children’s individual learning needs, if schools are inclusive communities that provide mutual support and encouragement, if communities mobilize to bring all children to school, if civil society and governments work together to provide early identification and rehabilitation services for children with disabilities, and if the global community provides resources and support for all this to happen, then equal access to quality education for children with disabilities could become a reality.
The 2011 World Report on Disability published by the World Health Organization and the World Bank envisages such an approach to bringing together the efforts of multiple stakeholders. The report suggests steps for governments, civil society and disabled people’s organizations to join forces to create enabling environments and services for persons with disabilities.
Inclusive education at GPE’s Replenishment Conference
Since the Education’s Missing Millions report, The Global Partnership has grown and attained new momentum, with 59 member countries and a new governance structure that includes broader representation than before. This is the kind of partnership required at school, district, national and international levels to finally turn the promises of Salamanca into reality. The inclusive education event at the Replenishment will be an occasion to take stock of progress and lessons learned since Salamanca, while reaffirming the right for all children, including children with disabilities, to attend school and to learn.