June 26, 2019

Vibhu's own struggle for education has made her a champion of rights for children with disabilities

Students use screen reader software on a classroom computer

Photo credit: Inable.org

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

The 26-year-old from India, who is working as a disability and inclusion consultant with Theirworld, talks about the barriers that need to be broken.

When Vibhu Sharma began to lose her sight as a child, she didn't get much sympathy or understanding at her school.

"The attitude of my primary school teachers became extremely negative," she said. "One teacher slapped me across my face for being unable to read from a book with small font size.

"My parents had told her my sight was deteriorating and that the ophthalmologists had advised that I should never be hit across my face or on my head, as it would negatively impact my eyes. The slap did impact them as well."

Despite Vibhu's high grades, her school in Delhi, India, wanted her out - saying they could not accommodate her disability.

"They even asked my parents why did they want to educate me at all now that I was blind," she said.

But Vibhu's family were loving and supportive and she was finally accepted at another mainstream school. Thanks to her determination and hard work, she went on to earn a BA with Honours at St Stephens College, Delhi University, and then made the huge step of moving to Scotland for a Master's degree in inclusive education at Edinburgh University.

About Vibhu Sharma

Aged 26, she is a passionate disability advocate, working as a disability and inclusion research consultant 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, and has been recognised as a Legends Honoree by Partners for Youth with Disabilities, USA, for her mentoring initiatives. 

She has become a committed and passionate campaigner for young people with disabilities. And now - back home in India - she is working with Theirworld as a disability and inclusion consultant.

Children with disabilities are more likely to miss out on school than other children - UNICEF estimates that 90% in developing countries do not go to school. Even those who are in school are more likely to leave before finishing their primary education.

For children who are already marginalised, such as girls and children living in rural areas, a disability creates an additional barrier to accessing education - often due to poor facilities or a curriculum not adapted to their needs.

Vibhu said: "More often than not, children and young people with disabilities do not have access to opportunities because of societal, physical and environmental barriers. These barriers inhibit them from fulfilling their dreams and living life to its fullest."

Her work with Theirworld will look at ways of overcoming these obstacles.

"I am primarily conducting research on mapping the most effective assistive technology used by children with different disabilities in developed countries," she explained. 

"Based on the findings, the idea is to develop recommendations to make the same assistive technology available to children with disabilities in developing countries, so that everyone has access to inclusive and equitable quality education."

Theirworld President Justin van Fleet said: "When I first met Vibhu I was impressed with the academic rigour she brought to campaigning for inclusive education as well as the results she was achieving.  

"I knew immediately we wanted her to be part of the Theirworld team, given our commitment to ensure young voices at the forefront of the campaign to end the global education crisis."

Vibhu gave an example of what can be achieved through campaigning and perseverance.

She said: "I advocated and successfully convinced the Central Board of Secondary Education, the highest school exam conducting body in India, to allow visually-impaired students to write their exams independently on a computer with screen-reading software, as against the traditional practice of having someone to write it down for them. 

"It was a struggle to convince them to make this change. But I kept on and gave them practical demos of using computers with screen-readers - and convinced them of how it made students with disabilities academically more independent. 

Children with disabilities are often excluded from access mainstream and inclusive education

Photo credit: UNICEF / De Wet

"It’s been six years now and students with visual impairment benefit from this provision every year. A few days ago, I received an email from a blind student in Mumbai, thanking me for bringing about this change. He said he didn’t have to worry about finding a scribe or if that person would write fast enough for him to finish the paper in time."

Vibhu is an active member of many international partnerships working towards improving the rights of people with disabilities.

She has spoken at many high-profile events about improving the rights of children with disabilities, including at the Economic and Social Council Youth Forum at the United Nations in New York in April.

This month - also at the UN - she co-moderated the civil society forum organised by the International Disability Alliance during a session of this year's Conference of the State Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Vibhu said: "I strongly believe that young people with disabilities need to voice their concerns, needs and demands. It’s we, the young people, who struggle with the everyday challenges of our time and we have the solutions. 

"We need to be strong, bold enough to voice them, and convince the policymakers, the people involved in implementation to listen to us, and act on our suggestions."

The Sustainable Development Goals - agreed by world leaders to be achieved by 2030 - say every child should have "inclusive and equitable quality education". They include a specific target to "build and upgrade education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive".

Vibhu Sharma at a World Bank forum in Washington, with (right) Jamira Burley, Head of Youth Engagement and Skills at the Global Business Coalition for Education

Photo credit: Global Business Coalition for Education

Van Fleet added: "At Theirworld, our vision is to end the global education crisis by ensuring every child has the best start in life, a safe place to learn and skills for the future. In order to do that, we need to ensure that every young person - especially the most marginalised and difficult to reach - are part of our efforts.

"Globally, there are more than 33 million children with disabilities out of school - and more than half of all secondary students with disabilities are not in school. Providing children with disabilities the support they need to be included in the learning process is the best way to ensure more inclusive societies and put communities on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

"Vibhu is helping us unlock the challenges of inclusion in classrooms by reviewing assistive technologies that are being used successfully and helping us identify pathways to mainstream and scale up their use so that affordable devices can be made available to education systems allowing more children to be part of the learning process and helping Theirworld unleash the potential of the next generation." 

Vibhu believes it will also take a collective effort from young people with and without disabilities for that to become a reality.

"Young people with disabilities need to take the initiative to have their voices heard, their concerns addressed and to talk about their needs and demands," she said.

"The non-disabled must also take into account what their peers with disabilities are saying, if they want to include them and find solutions to their challenges.

"My work in the mentoring area revolves around encouraging young people with or without disabilities to hold conversations, to empathise, to understand and to take into account the other person's perspective."

She said this means educating people without disabilities about accessibility and possibility - and making them understand that technology can provide many solutions.

"My mentoring work revolves around convincing the young, non-disabled people, that it is wrong to think inclusion is expensive. It is not. In fact, it is one of the best investments you can have in any educational, financial or social endeavour.

"When you exclude young people with disabilities, you not only deny them their right to be included but you also deny yourself the opportunity to gain from their involvement and the asset that they can be."

That understanding was born out of her own early experiences. When Vibhu lost her sight at the age of 10, she began to experience and understand the discrimination faced by children and adults with disabilities.

"Education became hard to access, while the sighted friends became friends no longer," she said. "For a long time, I kept thinking that I was at fault, there was something wrong with me.

"But then I was invited to an international congress on blind and partially-sighted children organised by the Spanish National Organisation of the Blind and the World Blind Union in 2008. 

In crisis situations, getting children with disabilities into school can be bottom of the list of problems to be tackled

Photo credit: UNICEF / Herwig

"As I discussed education, family and social and peer inclusion with 20 other young people with visual impairment from different countries, I realised that blind people everywhere faced the problems as I did. 

"I made my choices then. Barriers needed to be broken. I wanted to work for and with people with disabilities on education, equal opportunity, and social and peer inclusion."

Vibhu believes fiercely that children with disabilities should have access to mainstream and inclusive education.

She said: "I think it would be wrong to assume that mainstreaming and inclusion are synonymous with each other. Rather, mainstream becomes inclusive only when children with disabilities are included in it.

"Acceptance of disability as a part of human diversity would lead to a fully inclusive world - and this sensitivity can only come through education."

Vibhu's own story is a shining example of what can be achieved. But much more still needs to be done if young people with disabilities are to have equal access to education and opportunities.

She said: "I am a graduate with a Master’s degree from one of the world’s best universities, standing at the threshold of my professional career.

"But I still feel baffled and worried to think of what lies ahead. This is mainly because I have a disability. I regularly see young people being discriminated from employment opportunities because of their disabilities. 

"The challenges continue - and so does the hard work to advocate for and with young people with disabilities."

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