Everyone has the right to education but for some people accessing this education is far harder than it should be. Marking December 3, which is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we are focusing on some of the barriers preventing people with disabilities attending school and receiving an education of good quality.
Outcomes don’t match commitments
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had a rapid ratification rate, with 87% of countries ratifying within 10 years of adoption. Only the Convention on the Rights of the Child had a faster ratification rate. Article 24 of the Convention calls for the development of inclusive education at all levels: countries must ensure their laws both promote the right of persons with disabilities to education at all levels and allow them to learn alongside other students in inclusive schools, for example through individual education plans: the 2017/8 GEM Report found that constitutions, laws or policies in 42 of 86 countries explicitly referenced inclusive education.
However, the interpretation of ‘inclusive education’ varies significantly, and there is a large divide between mandated policies and actual outcomes. In several countries, various factors, including resource shortages or resistance to the idea of inclusive education, mean that what is promised does not materialize.
In countries such as Serbia and Turkey, over 35% of schools were affected by material shortages that significantly impeded provision of instruction to students with special needs. In Jordan, transport challenges, inadequate physical environments and lack of harmonization of curricula commensurate with the needs of persons with disabilities mean that inclusive programmes are not properly implemented.
In South Africa, despite the constitution and the 1996 School Act requiring special needs education to be available to all children with disabilities, a government monitoring report found that 26% of 5- to 15-year-olds with a disability were not attending school, there was a critical shortage of health and social services professionals, new special schools were being built, and no specific provisions were being made for children with severe intellectual disabilities.
Evidently, we still have a long way to go to ensure access to quality education for children with disabilities. European youth with disabilities are more likely to be early school leavers. In the Maldives, the primary attendance rate was 85% for those with disabilities and 94% for those without, while in Cambodia, the respective figures were 43% and 93%.
More data and better definitions are needed
It is still difficult to collect education data on people with disabilities. This is not only because of the inherent complexity of documenting the characteristics of such a diverse population group. In some parts of the world, disability is unfortunately still seen as stigmatizing. National monitoring systems for disability are still developing. The lack of a clear, internationally established definition of disability or special education can be a significant obstacle in collecting meaningful data in that respect. There is also not a clear definition of inclusive education, which makes it even harder to set universal standards.
Another challenge is that most country reports narrowly focus on enrolment and do not provide a more detailed account of education outcomes as well as inclusive practices in schools and classrooms. The report of the government of Rwanda, for example, to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities mentioned that ‘much [remained] to be done, not only to improve enrolment … but in providing meaningful learning, and progression to a similar standard as other students’. The 2016 GEM Report showed that only 9% of textbooks mentioned the existence of people living with disabilities.
There is likely to be an increase in data on people with disabilities over the next few years, which will make clearer the magnitude of the challenge of ensuring access to education for this group. We hope that the 2020 GEM Report on inclusion will also help drive the debates and solutions forward a pace. If we are going to meet our SDG4 commitments, we cannot allow people with disabilities to fall between the cracks.