Trésor, 12, is enrolled in an inclusive school in the commune of Selembao in Kinshasa. Trésor contracted polio at the age of three and lost the use of his left leg. HI provides him with the equipment he needs to go to school. | © Thomas Freteur/HI
On November 20th, on the occasion of Universal Children's Day, HI has published a report on the difficulties children with disabilities face in accessing education in the world’s poorest countries. Valentina Pomatto, Inclusion Advocacy Officer for HI, explains the obstacles to inclusive education.
Thirty-two million children with disabilities in low- and middle-income countries are not enrolled in school. We can end this exclusion.
Children with disabilities are still the most likely to be excluded from the education system: fifty percent of children with disabilities in low- and middle-income countries are still not enrolled in school. Only forty-two percent of girls with disabilities complete their primary school education, compared to fifty-one per cent of boys with disabilities (UNICEF). Children with sensory, physical or intellectual disabilities have a low school enrolment rate. They are two and a half times more likely not to attend school at all (UNESCO).
Many schools remain inaccessible – to people in a wheelchair, for example. Teaching aids like textbooks are often inadequate. Teachers are ill-prepared to teach children with a disability. They may not think to seat a visually impaired student in the front row and assume they have learning difficulties when they simply cannot read the board. All of these obstacles can and must be overcome.
No, the problem is not just inside schools – and this is what our report is about. Many obstacles to education lie outside. We see countless examples every day. A child with no transport or money to access rehabilitation care will grow too sick to attend school. A parent in a country without a welfare system who loses their job will ask their child to drop out of school and work to support the family. Family, friends, and local communities can hold strong prejudices and assume children with disabilities are unable to learn - so what is the point of sending them to school?
When children with disabilities do enrol in school, they are often segregated. Forty percent of children with disabilities in Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean are enrolled in special schools where they do not have contact with other children (Global Education Monitoring Report, 2020). This is unacceptable and causes more stigma and discrimination.
Up to ninety percent of children and young people have had their education disrupted since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Schools are still closed in 30 countries, accounting for some 33% of the student population (UNESCO). They include many children with disabilities who have stopped going to school.
Schools have found many ways to teach children remotely during the lockdown - online, for instance. But most children with disabilities come from extremely poor families who rarely have a computer at home. Some countries air lessons on YouTube or the radio, which are inaccessible to deaf or blind children.
Lastly, schools provide much more than an education: school is where a great many children eat their only meal of the day and access school-based care and child protection services. When countries go into lockdown and schools close, this service ends.
We are calling on international funding bodies to use development aid to invest in education. Funding for education has stagnated over the past decade, increasing the risk of growing inequality. We are calling for investment in free, inclusive education that does not reproduce a school system that segregates children.
We encourage the governments of low- and middle-income countries to coordinate education with health, welfare, child protection, transport, and other services. This means, for example, implementing a policy to help poor families, setting up a decentralised healthcare system (there are often medical centres in big cities but none in rural or remote areas), and providing affordable and safe transport to school.
Most of all, we are calling on them to listen to people with disabilities, their families, and their representative organisations because they are best placed to make practical proposals and improve access to school.
In 2020, HI has implemented 52 projects in 27 countries in West, Central, North and East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Its work focuses in particular on children with disabilities - the most vulnerable and excluded young learners in the world - in low-income countries and in development and emergency contexts. HI aims to increase the school enrolment of children and young adults with disabilities.
Let’s break silos now! Achieving disability-inclusive education in a post-COVID world