Emerging from COVID-19 pandemic: A social inclusion approach to educating learners with disabilities


By Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, Global Disability Advisor, World Bank and Anna Cristina D’Addio, Senior Policy Analyst at the GEM Report

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of children to stay at home and physically out of school. Despite planned school re-opening in certain regions, 46% of the world’s learners remain impacted by school closures. In response to COVID-19, governments, global education stakeholders, civil society, and educators have collaborated to ensure measures to continue learning, as they simultaneously work to contain the virus and support the health and well-being of learners. From an equity perspective, there is a growing concern regarding potential exclusion of the most marginalized groups and in particular, children with disabilities. The concern is that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people from lower socio-economic groups. Research indicates that children with disabilities and their families are particularly vulnerable as they are more likely to be poor and less likely to have access to vital information. Poverty is a critical dimension which further exacerbates exclusion from education, health, and social inclusion during the Pandemic.

Image: Exceed Worldwide / Simon Larbalestier

To capture and address these critical concerns, the Inclusive Education Initiative (IEI) managed by the World Bank released an issues paper focusing on COVID-19 and learners with disabilities. The paper titled, Pivoting to Inclusion: Leveraging Lessons from the COVID-19 Crisis for Learners with Disabilities, highlights the emerging social and educational needs, barriers, and issues experienced by children with disabilities, their families, and teachers. Reinforcing the twin-track approach to disability-inclusive development and the principles of Universal Design for Learning, the paper sets out recommended practices to meet the immediate needs of learners with disabilities, medium-term strategies for re-opening, and long term actions that should be implemented to make progress towards more equitable, inclusive learning ecosystems during and after the pandemic.

Listen to the voices of parents, teachers, and persons with disabilities

Image: Exceed Worldwide / Robert Joiner

To better understand if learners with disabilities and their families have access to the support they need to continue learning while schools are closed due to COVID-19, the IEI carried out the IEI COVID-19 Survey on Children with Disabilities. The results highlight critical observations from parents, teachers, and persons with disabilities across seven geographic regions reflecting their lived experience, on providing care support, and ensuring quality learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. While governments and global education actors are working towards solutions to address the crisis, many concerns and observations highlighted below by stakeholders remain in need of further action.

  • Parents are concerned about learning loss due to the school closures and reintegration once schools re-open. School re-opening plans should include catch-up programs for learners with disabilities to ensure their learning and well-being is addressed. Parents also noted difficulties in accessing affordable, low-cost internet data and equipment to support online learning. There is a need for accessible information, instruction for home learning, and community support for the care and well-being of children with disabilities.
  • Teachers are concerned about having the appropriate support, especially in low- and lower-middle-income countries, on training and provision of resources to teach online, including access to internet, desktops, tablets, accessible learning devices and content. Another concern that emerged was actualizing guidelines, protocols, and prevention measures around promoting social distancing for learners with disabilities to ensure safety in school.
  • Persons with disabilities are concerned about a further decrease in the rate of education and employment of persons with disabilities due to COVID-19, therefore widening the learning, wage, and poverty gaps. The lack of support for students, parents, and caregivers to prevent, protect and manage the continuing education and health crisis was also articulated as a concern along with advocacy mechanisms that can facilitate and support the involvement of persons with disabilities in COVID-19 response planning and implementation.

Think inclusive, act inclusive

A global seminar hosted by the IEI held in July discussed the emerging education and social needs, barriers, and issues experienced by children with disabilities in relation to COVID-19  from a global and national perspective. The seminar featured country-specific experiences from Kenya and Nepal on how they have addressed disability-inclusive education by  using  digital technology and social protection measures to mitigate the existing barriers in remote learning.  The participant discussion pointed to the need to develop practical disability-inclusive responses at the country level, including:

  • Facilitating mechanisms to promote accountability, including training local organizations of persons with disabilities and civil society organizations to participate in decision making and review processes of education plans in the medium- and long-term;
  • Providing additional support to learners with disabilities with printed education packets and braille materials in countries where the medium of learning is primarily radio;
  • Documenting practices and lessons learned from the pandemic and the risks faced by children with multiple vulnerabilities for developing strategies for ongoing teacher training to provide quality inclusive education to all children, including those with disabilities;
  • Establishing a multi-sectorial approach for education financing to avoid the burden of the responsibility falling squarely on the education budget. Sectors, such as health, social protection, gender, and telecom must collaborate to increase affordable and sustained access to care, well-being, and education during emergencies;
  • Ensure all data collection efforts during and post-pandemic promote the collection and use of data disaggregated by disability.

The seminar also explored solutions to promoting inclusive education for children with disabilities during and post-pandemic. It concluded with a recognition that the pandemic, presents opportunities to build back more inclusive systems for all learners.

The interest in issues paper and the global seminar has garnered much attention, with demand from civil society, academia, and stakeholders at the regional and country levels to host more localized seminars. In response to this demand, the IEI will continue to share the findings from the issues paper, publish the survey results, and continue dialogue on the inclusion of learners with disabilities in the responses to COVID-19 in select countries. To engage and participate in the discussion and find out where the national seminars will be held, please  join the Disability Inclusive Education Community of Practice for upcoming regional events and resources on COVID-19 and learners with disabilities.


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