Why more must be done to enable children with disabilities through education

Rolando Villamero Jr. is a member of the United Nations Global Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group and a scholar in the Erasmus Mundus Program in Special and Inclusive Education (EMSIE). Here he examines the education challenges faced by children with disabilities.

Cardinal Roger Malhony once said: “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members – the last, the least, the littlest.”

The A World at School Google hangout on Education for All outlined the current state of education for people living with disabilities and sparked an important discussion on special and inclusive education.

Until now, children and young people with disabilities remain the single most excluded group from education. UNESCO estimates around 23 million children with disabilities to be out of school, the large majority of whom are living in developing countries.

In my native country – the Philippines – 81% of children and young people with disabilities are out of school and, in the province where I come from, two out of three children with disabilities who are enrolled in regular classes drop out of school by the middle of school year. Those who manage to stay in school have less than a 30% chance of progressing to the next level.

This problem is caused by many factors. In developing countries, a prevailing negative attitude regarding disabilities within the community has been the strongest reason for the  exclusion of this group from education. In addition, physical or structural accessibility remains a challenge, especially for those who have mobility and visual impairments.

The Education for All Global Monitoring Report 20013/14 highlights that efforts have been made to make schools more inclusive in many countries. In Vietnam, for example, educators now create individual plans for students, adapt activities and measure the learning outcomes of children with disabilities. 

However, education systems in developing countries remain largely rigid and unresponsive to the needs of children and young people with disabilities. Children with cerebral palsy are often forced to do tedious writing exercises, young people with learning disabilities are left with no choice but to take written examinations without modifications, children with behavioural concerns are compelled to sit in class for long periods of time and young people who are wheelchair users often have to overcome the challenge of physical accessibility just to go to school.

The results of failing to secure the rights of children and young people with disabilities to go to school and learn are becoming ever more evident as we gather better data – and the figures are disappointing, to say the least.

People of working age with disabilities living in low and middle-income countries are estimated to be one-third less likely to have completed primary school.

The UN estimates that 80% to 90% of people living with disabilities are unemployed in developing countries. People with disabilities were also entirely left out of the 2015 United Nations Millennium development goals – this must not be the case for the post-2015 agenda!    

To adequately address the exclusion of the 23 million children with disabilities who are currently out of school,  we need to improve significantly on information gathering and enable both a physical and social rehabilitation for those children.

Additionally, awareness-raising activities have to be intensified in order to educate the families, schools, and the community about the many challenges that people living with disabilities face. Teachers have to undergo training on inclusive education strategies so that they can develop the capacity to effectively accommodate pupils with disabilities.

We have to be idealistic in dealing with the issue of inclusion. We should actively include Persons with Disabilities (PWD) in every decision taken by the international and local communities because people with disabilities are not an isolated group. They are a part of our society and the challenges they face require a muitl-sectoral response that cuts across all aspects of life.

From sports, to the workforce, to education, we must work for and with people with disabilities.

We leave no one behind.

Watch the hangout here and see what experts on disabilities from Leonard Cheshire Disability, Special Olympics and The Global Campaign for Education had to say.