The Missing Millions: Education for Children Living with Disabilities

This week we are pleased to present the first in a series of posts about Education for Children with Disabilities, from guest writer Sarah Beeching. The second post in this series, Disability and Political Inclusion, builds on the themes below.

This young girl from Ngwino Nawe, Rwanda, is profoundly deaf and mute.... but a great gymnast
This young girl from Ngwino Nawe, Rwanda, is profoundly deaf and mute…. but a great gymnast.

‘Leave no one behind’ is the mantra set out in the High Level Panel report published in May 2013. The report, presented to the UN Secretary General, makes key recommendations for world leaders and policy makers for global sustainable development goals beyond 2015.   In this two-part blog series I explore a group of people who are currently being left behind, children with disabilities, and what this means in the context of delivering education goals.

Worldwide, children living with disabilities are most likely to be excluded from the education system.  Enrolment rates are low and in some areas negligible. There are now 57 million children of primary school age who never enrol in school[1].   The data on the number of these who have some form of disability are non-existent, though some estimate it might be almost 50 percent.  This figure is shockingly high and concerted action must be taken by governments, communities, donors and policy makers to ensure these out-of-school children are able to complete schooling, and, critically, learn skills that will enable them to reach their potential.

The right to education for people with disabilities is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force on May 2008 and has been signed by 141 countries. In spite of this, disability is neglected, de-prioritised and under resourced. This is demonstrated most strikingly in the absence of any mention of disability in the eight MDGs, the attendant 21 targets or 60 indicators, or in the Millennium Declaration.[2]  If resources follow what we measure, it is not surprising such little attention has been paid to those with disabilities.

Challenges and Barriers

Disability is one of the least visible but most potent factors in educational marginalisation and exclusion. Yet ‘disability’ is such a catchall term, it does not capture the great variation in needs of affected children; training requirements for teachers; the need for anti-discrimination measures, and adaptation requirements for school facilities.  Not all people with disabilities are equally disadvantaged – children with physical impairments generally fare better in terms of school enrolment rates and attainment than those with intellectual or sensory impairments.  Without a revolution in the collection of data that disaggregates the needs, effective policy and programme decisions are almost impossible to make.

Children with disabilities face a number of significant barriers to education. In many countries there is lack of concrete and transformative legislative policy, targets and plans, and even where they exist, there are insufficient resources to deliver them.   In school, children with disabilities often have to cope with inappropriate curricula and pedagogy; inadequately trained teachers, and physical barriers, such as inaccessible school buildings.  Social barriers are also prevalent, stemming from a lack of understanding about the causes of disability.  Children often have to cope with stigmatisation, verbal and/or physical abuse and even abandonment by their communities. Parents often lack knowledge about the potential that their children have if given the right teaching, in the right environment.

The international policy response has been hampered by lack of agreed definitions and sufficiently nuanced understandings of the nature and extent of the challenges and barriers, and how these can be successfully addressed.   For too long the challenge of delivering education for children with disabilities has been put in the ‘too hard’ basket.  But, if we are to deliver on our promise of education for all, reaching the missing millions demands that we prioritise the needs of disabled children and find solutions, no matter how hard this might appear.

Inclusive Education – the opportunity for change

With so many barriers that prevent children with disabilities accessing a quality and sustained education, what are the options?

One approach which is commonly promoted by disabled people’s organisations is the model of inclusive education.  This focuses on educating children with a range of abilities together.   Including children with disabilities in the education system is often viewed as an ‘add-on’ or a luxury – particularly in resource-scare countries. However, to implement inclusive education does not have to be expensive and can improve the educational experience for all children. Inclusive education needs to involve the whole community and can set the foundations for an integrated society, leading to increased levels of equality, well being and growth for all.

However, this is just one approach that will work for some children – certainly for those whose disability is less severe.  However, as we work towards the progressive realisation of rights, there need to be other solutions where inclusion is not a possibility in the short term, or the needs of the child are more profound.

Influencing the debate

In November 2013, the International Development Select Committee launched an inquiry into Disability and Development. Although a range of issues will be covered, education will be key. The Committee are in the process of taking oral evidence to supplement over 70 written submissions received.  Encouragingly, the PUSS for DFID, Lynne Featherstone publicly signalled the UK Government’s commitment to “tackle the great neglect of disability” [3].  There is no doubting that there is much more work to be done: hopefully the Committee’s report will stimulate further debate and put forward recommendations for future action by DFID and others.

My next post will report on my forthcoming trip to a remote corner of Rwanda, where I will visit Ngwino Nawe, a home for disabled children, supported by RwandaAid.  Ngwino Nawe offers a very different model for educating children with disabilities: some children are integrated into the local school, others are taught separately, and all live together during term time.

OshunSarah Beeching is the Executive Director of Oshun Partnership.  Oshun are conducting a review of DFID’s work on education for children with disabilities for the Global Campaign for Education.  The report will be issued to coincide with Global Action week (4-10 May), whose theme this year is Education and Disability.

[1]Unesco, Global Monitoring Review, 2013

[2] United Nations, ‘Disability and the Millennium Development Goals: A Review of the MDG Process and Strategies for Inclusion of Disability Issues in MDG Efforts’, 2011. See:

[3] DFID, ‘UK pledge to help tackle the ‘great neglect’ of disability’, Press Release, 23 September 2013, see:

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