Breaking the Barriers to Inclusion

February 24, 2017Corinne Hoogakker

When we talk about out-of-school children, we often think of the family who can’t afford a school uniform, the refugee family displaced from their home, or maybe the parent who doesn’t see the value in educating a daughter. Perhaps we think of a student who drops out of school to go to work, or stops attending when the teacher doesn’t come to class. But someone is missing: the child excluded from education because of disability.

Recent evidence has shown that in many countries children with disabilities make up the vast majority of out-of-school children, particularly in nations with high rates of enrollment overall. According to the Global Campaign for Education, 95% of Bolivian primary-school-aged students are in school- but only 38% of disabled children are enrolled. In Tanzania and Malawi, a child with disability is twice as likely to never have attended school. The pattern continues around the world. And even if these children do go to school, they often do not receive the support they need to succeed and are far more likely to drop out.

With a lack of data on the true number of disabled children worldwide and the challenges they face, we know children with disability often remain invisible to education policymakers, considered a “marginal” issue and given low priority. But in the most recent World Report on Disability, the WHO estimates approximately 1 in 20 children under 15 (at least 93 million worldwide) are living with moderate or severe disabilities. Creativity, persistence, and dedication will be required to guarantee these children’s right to education.

Acting Early

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For some children living with disabilities, early intervention can change the course of their lives. Deaf children who are not diagnosed early often suffer from learning deficits because of a lack of stimulation in the critical first years of life. However, in South Africa, like many other countries, early screening for hearing loss in infants is not mandated. The Carel du Toit school and early intervention center uses auditory technologies and teaching methods to help children reach normal linguistic competence and be fully integrated in a hearing society. Recognizing that support in school is not sufficient, the program also focuses on guiding parents in raising a deaf or hearing impaired child. Parents are included in school activities and empowered with the information they need to help their child develop.

To spread impacts beyond the center, Carel du Toit also provides support to local schools with hearing impaired students and advocates for government policy changes to ensure early screening of all children to detect hearing loss before learning deficits occur.

Spreading Awareness and Countering Stigma

disability education inclusion autism deaf blind handicapped teaching learning international development child school disabled

Where resources for education are scarce, the specialized support needed by children with developmental disorders and autism spectrum disorders can be hard to find. In Nigeria, behavior analyst Toks Bakare has created the website which aims to address this knowledge gap through advocacy and education. The program develops and implements behavioral interventions and trains parents, teachers, and others on techniques for working with autistic children.

AskToks disseminates information on autism throughout Nigeria to counter myths and misinformation on disability through meetings, focus groups, social media outreach, information packages, and a resource guide.

disability education inclusion autism deaf blind handicapped teaching learning international development child school disabled

Building Bridges Between Civil Society and Government

Often, civil society is the catalyst that brings the issues surrounding education of children living with disability to light.  But ultimately, the government of each country must take on the responsibility of educating all members of society. Inclusive Futures in Rwanda is helping the national government prepare for this responsibility by developing and piloting national standards for inclusive education. However, because the ideas of inclusive education are relatively unknown in the Rwandan context, Inclusive Futures also provides support for the implementation of the new standards. The program works in 24 communities, demonstrating an effective and holistic strategy for inclusive education including teacher training, support to develop and track individual learning plans, and community and family outreach to create a supportive physical and social environment.

disability education inclusion autism deaf blind handicapped teaching learning international development child school disabledIn Cambodia, Krousar Thmey is also forging a link between civil society and the government. Over twenty years ago, the organization worked to create a Khmer braille and sign language so that Cambodian blind and deaf children had the opportunity to communicate effectively for the first time. Now, the organization operates the only schools for blind and deaf children in Cambodia that provide comprehensive education and teach government curriculum.

By progressively building relationships with the authorities, Krousar Thmey has been able to begin to transfer some responsibility to the government, which now funds the Braille Workshop and Sign Language Committee in publishing dictionaries, and creating new educational materials. All teachers at the five schools are now Cambodian civil servants, and the organization hopes to transfer the schools to the government in 2020.

Supporting the Transition to Work

disability education inclusion autism deaf blind handicapped teaching learning international development child school disabled

Inclusion of disabled children and youth cannot end when a student finishes school. Often, the transition from education to work can be difficult with little community support or understanding from employers. The Noida Deaf Society operates centers in four Indian states to provide deaf students with vocational training and workplace readiness skills.  By first equipping students with improved communication skill in English and Indian Sign Language, then providing vocational classes designed to link with the needs of employers, the program helps participants find gainful, permanent employment and support their families. Furthermore, NDS advocates for deaf with local employers, working to break down long-standing social stigma surrounding deafness. NDS has worked to sensitize many employers, particularly in the IT industry, and find placements for approximately 1,500 deaf students.

Changing the Conversation

Providing effective education for disabled children often requires tailored programs for a variety of students who can’t see the board, can’t hear the teacher, or won’t succeed in a traditional classroom environment. In countries struggling to provide quality education to students without physical or mental disabilities, there is no doubt that this is difficult.

However, in the face of this challenge, a growing global consensus is emerging which recognizes that a commitment to quality global education cannot coexist with the pervasive, silent exclusion of millions of children from education. It is undeniable that social barriers to inclusion are often much more significant than barriers directly caused by disability. Learning from initiatives around the world that are fighting this stigma can help us find the next steps forward.


Corinne Hoogakker is pursuing her MA in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).  She works as an intern at the Center for Education Innovations (CEI) at R4D.  Before coming to R4D, she served as a primary school teacher in Palestine and worked in administration in DC public schools.

Photo Credits (top to bottom): Rosalie Colfs/ Handicap International ; Carel du Toit Centre ; ; Handicap InternationalKrousar Thmey ; Noida Deaf Society

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