All children in school together: the quest for disability-inclusive education

19 July 2018


Jim Ackers and Mark Waltham at the technical round table

Children with disabilities face many barriers to quality education. In low- and lower middle-income countries, around 40 percent of primary school age children with disabilities are out of school and 55 percent at lower secondary school, according to the World Report on Disability. For those who are in school, it is typically a special school outside of the mainstream system.

During a technical Round Table, co-organized by IIEP-UNESCO and UNICEF, from 18-20 July 2018, we spoke with two education specialists. Jim Ackers is the Head of Training at IIEP and Mark Waltham is a senior education advisor for UNICEF.


IIEP: Jim, could you tell us how this Round Table came about with its focus on disability-inclusive educational planning?

Jim Ackers: Inclusive education is a global priority today, as reflected in Sustainable Development Goal 4 for education. In its simplest terms, it means that all children - no matter who they are - can learn together in the same school. Many people agree with this principle, but for many countries implementing this principle at scale, especially in under-resourced systems is a significant challenge. We want to support countries respond to this challenge by helping ensure that they include children with disability in education sector planning and that all children ultimately have the opportunity to learn together. This is necessary from both a human rights and human capital perspective.

This Round Table, which also included a two-week long online forum, convenes eight countries with representatives from government, disability person’s organizations, and development partners. The participants have the opportunity to discuss challenges and reflect on how they might enhance planning for inclusive education in future. The idea of the Round Table came during regional workshops on Inclusive Education in 2017 where Mark Waltham, Natasha Graham and I started to discuss the possibility of UNICEF and IIEP joining forces around inclusive education with a focus on disabilities. I saw IIEP’s training capacity as a key complement to what UNICEF and other partners are doing at the advocacy level and on the ground at the country level.  Agreeing to work together on both the Technical Roundtable and on the future development of training materials on inclusive education was timely as other partners, including DFID have enhanced their commitment to addressing the needs of those with disabilities.


IIEP: At the global level, we are seeing more consensus on the benefits of inclusive education. Mark, can you tell us how inclusive education first got on your radar?

Mark Waltham: Like too many education advisers, I rarely used to think about children with disabilities.  A large part of this omission was probably because I so rarely came across these children.  Very occasionally, on a school visit, I would see a single kid on crutches at the back of a classroom but, for most of the time, children with disabilities were out of sight and out of mind.  It simply never occurred to me that this was an indication of a deeper problem, that children with disabilities were being kept out of school, often hidden away in their houses out of shame or stigma. Over the years, I had missed many signals that I was guilty of a serious oversight. 


IIEP: What were some of these signals?

Mark: The first came in 2006.  I was working for AusAID, and we had drafted a policy paper pointing out that, in order to meet the MDGs, every single kid would need to start school that year.  But we knew this wasn’t going to happen as so many children were effectively excluded from education – because there wasn’t a school nearby, because they didn’t speak the language of instruction, or because they had a disability. 

A second signal came in 2010, while I was working for DFID.  The official figures had just been released for the enrolment rates during the years of the global economic crisis in 2007-2008.  These clearly showed that the remarkable progress that had been made since 2000 had stalled, leaving around 60 million children out of school.  Once again, we knew that many of these were children with disabilities, although there wasn’t enough data to develop any evidence-based policy proposals for how we should respond to this issue. My final conversion to inclusive education came in 2012 while working as the UNICEF focal point for the Out of School Children Initiative (OOSCI).  The early country studies had started to come in, with facts and figures on which children were out of school and why they were excluded. Many studies found that children with disabilities were being systematically excluded from education and, crucially, they had the data to back it up. 


IIEP: Jim, How have you seen the concept of inclusive education evolve during your career? 

Jim: Prior to joining IIEP, I was the UNICEF Regional Education Adviser in Eastern and Southern Africa (2009-2014) and East Asia and the Pacific (2014-2017). In this role, I was responsible for co-ordinating cross-sectoral collaboration on children with disabilities. Back in the early 2000s, there was a focus on equity but there was little in the way of concrete commitment around the rights of children with disabilities. It was a huge challenge in terms of data and analysis and also in terms of  actually addressing needs. A key question is how we respond to the needs of children with disabilities. While there is now global agreement on the need to have inclusive education systems there is still a lack of consensus on exactly what this means in terms of operationalisation.  Part of the challenge is the scope - inclusive education must go far beyond addressing the rights of children with disabilities and extend to other groups such as ethnic and linguistic minorities, those affected by conflict and gender stereotyping, for example.  However the need to be comprehensive can represent a serious challenge for education planning and finance, not least in resource poor countries as comprehensive inclusive policies can be difficult to implement. But this challenge should not be cited as a rationale for inaction: we must plan for progressive realisation and look for appropriate entry points. There is a strong momentum around disabilities at present so this is an opportunity that we are keen to respond to.


IIEP: The Round Table is not the only event focusing on inclusive education. What does this signal?

Mark: It is encouraging that the Technical Round Table is only one of the major events on inclusive education this year.  In the following week, inclusive education is one of the four themes of the Global Disability Summit in London hosted by DFID, the Government of Kenya and the International Disability Alliance.  And later in the year, the World Bank, USAID and UNICEF will be running a Clinic for Africa on Inclusive Education.

With all of this attention on inclusive education, I’m increasingly hopeful that the millions of children with disabilities around the world who have been ignored and hidden away for so long will finally be able to realise their right to go to school and receive a good quality education. 

Jim: I agree, these are exciting times in terms of enhanced commitments to the rights of people with disabilities. If we all put the same energy and commitment into this work that we frequently see demonstrated by colleagues with severe and multiple disabilities, I am sure that we will make up for lost time and make rapid progress even in the most difficult of country contexts.