December 03, 2019

'Young people with disabilities must be bold and campaign for fully inclusive education'

"Young people with disabilities are actually great innovators" says Vibhu Sharma

Photo credit: World Bank

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

On International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Theirworld inclusion consultant Vibhu Sharma tells how school systems are failing millions of children.

The statistics are startling. Of the 100 million or so children around the world with a disability, 80% of them are in developing countries. In these countries, 40% of children with disabilities don't go to primary school and 55% are not in secondary education.

Beyond those stark facts are millions of other children with disabilities who are in classrooms but are left feeling excluded, intimidated and unvalued by the failings of school systems.

"There are real people behind these numbers who are affected by the inefficiencies and inadequacies of the education system that is supposed to accommodate them," said Indian campaigner and youth mentor Vibhu Sharma.

"Students with disabilities enrolled in mainstream educational institutions - irrespective of whether they are in developing or developed countries - regularly feel discriminated against and left out."

Vibhu Sharma, watched by Theirworld President Justin van Fleet, gives her talk at Edinburgh University on breaking down barriers for students with disabilities

Photo credit: Patricia Senge

Vibhu knows only too well how it feels to battle against those challenges. She lost her sight at the age of 10, struggled to be included in the school system and now works as Disability and Inclusion Research Consultant with Theirworld.

Ahead of International Day of Persons with Disabilities today, she gave a talk at Scotland's Edinburgh University, where she graduated last year with a Master's degree in inclusive education. 

Her theme was breaking down barriers to work with, and for, people with disabilities on education, equal opportunity, and social and peer inclusion.

She said that while many children with disabilities are enrolled in mainstream education systems, they can face challenges such as poor school infrastructure, inadequate teaching and lack of accessible books and technology.

About Vibhu Sharma

She is a passionate disability advocate, working as Disability and Inclusion Research Cconsultant with Theirworld, co-chairing the Global Partnership for Children with Disabilities – Youth Council and serving as a Global Board Member of Generation Unlimited. She is a mentor for youth with and without disabilities at national and global levels. 

So what needs to be done? 

"For most people, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible," said Vibhu, who also has a BA with Honours from Delhi University.

She told how Theirworld is working to bring about change, including making education systems more accessible. Theirworld's #WriteTheWrong campaign is about getting all children into school and giving them the opportunity to unleash their potential.

Vibhu added: "We are conducting research on assistive technologies and are speaking to mainstream school children with disabilities and their teachers to find out the most effective assistive technologies.

"Based on our findings, we intend to develop recommendations to make the same assistive technology available to children with disabilities in developing countries. We at Theirworld will put in our effort to #WriteTheWrong and make educations systems inclusive education systems in reality."

Muzna, 10, was diagnosed with a brain tumour which caused the loss of her sight. Muzna learned Braille and hopes to attend a public school with other children soon.

Photo credit: UNICEF

Vibhu believes that young people with disabilities need to play a major role themselves if the systems are to improve.

"Young people with disabilities are actually great innovators as they have to innovate every day to deal with the challenges that the academic or social environments present to them," she said. 

"They must, therefore, play an active role in introducing a change in initiatives that would help them and their peers - and be strong, bold enough to voice their concerns, and convince the policymakers to listen to them and act on their suggestions."

Vibhu gave an example of that campaigning spirit at a separate event in Edinburgh for supporters of Theirworld, where she told how she was due to sit crucial exams at high school.

"They asked children with a visual impairment to sit with a scribe who would read the exam papers to them and write their answers. I was not used to this because I was very self-reliant, using a computer and screen-reading software."

Filomena attends regular physiotherapy sessions at a rehabilitation centre. Her mother carries her for over three hours there and back, they still go four times a week

Photo credit: UNICEF

When she complained that this method wasn't inclusive, the education authorities told her the system WAS because exams were held on the ground floor to help students with disabilities.

"I told them that's not going to help me," laughed Vibhu. "I promise you I can get there by the stairs!"

She persuaded the Central Board of Secondary Education, the highest school exam conducting body in India, to allow her to give practical demonstrations in using computers with screen-readers. Eventually, the board relented and started to produce question papers in an accessible format on a computer. 

"It took me two years to convince them," said Vibhu. "Today I'm very happy that the system is well in place in India. It was a gigantic policy change."

Theirworld President Justin van Fleet said: "At Theirworld we are all about unlocking big change. Vibhu is pushing us to make sure that in everything we do we are putting inclusion front and centre."

What the UN says about the challenge

"Among the countries with data, persons with disabilities encounter multiple barriers to education and they are nearly always worse off than persons without disabilities.

"They are less likely to attend school, they are more likely to be out of school, they are less likely to complete primary or secondary education, they have fewer years of schooling, and they are less likely to possess basic literacy skills. 

"There is an urgent need to improve access to education for persons with disabilities because educational disadvantage could lead to higher rates of social exclusion and poverty and therefore have long-term implications for their capacity to participate in the labour force."

From UN's Disability and Development Report 2018

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