Inclusive education: a right not a privilege

Richard Rieser

Although there is a lack of clarity as to precisely what the term means, if education is to be truly ‘inclusive’ it must focus not only on schooling children with disabilities but also their parents, teachers, classmates and the wider community. Richard Rieser believes that there are many valuable lessons to be drawn from the pockets of good practice that can be found across the world.

Millennium Development Goal 2 requires that, by 2015, all children everywhere are able to complete a full course of primary education. The long-term effects of the 2008-09 economic crisis, and the subsequent financial instabil­ity, have meant this target will not be reached as many families are forced into greater poverty and can no longer afford the ‘luxury’ of sending their children to school. This is particularly true for chil­dren with disabilities.

Even before 2009, when progress was being made in increasing the numbers of children enrolling in primary schools, in countries attaining 90-95 percent enrolment, upwards of 40 percent of those not in school were children with disabilities. UNICEF estimates that over 90 percent of disabled children in the Global South do not attend school – this figure is even higher if they are also girls. On top of this, children with disabilities have a high drop-out rate because schools fail to adapt their teaching so they can achieve. As a result, relatively few disabled pupils transfer to secondary and higher education, and the life cycles of poverty are reinforced as large numbers of young people with disabilities fail to make a decent living.

Yet Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which came into force on 3 May 2008, requires that signatory nations ensure that all children with disabilities can fully participate in the state education. So far, 115 countries have ratified this treaty. While education for all is an obligation subject to progressive realisation and dependent on the resources available, countries that have signed up to the convention need to be planning to transform their school systems to meet the needs of all learners.

Article 24 also stipulates that education for children and young people with disabilities should be directed towards developing “their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential” thereby “enabling per­sons with disabilities to participate effectively in a free society”. “Reasonable accommodation” of an individual’s requirements should be provided, including the implementation of personalised support programmes. All this is to be delivered within an educa­tion system that is inclusive at all levels – primary, secondary and tertiary.

In addition, Article 9 of the UNCRPD states that school build­ings, transportation, information and communications must be made fully accessible on an equal basis. According to Article 8, which deals with awareness-raising, the education system should instil in all pupils from an early age a positive attitude towards peo­ple with disabilities in order to combat stereotypes and prejudices. Signatories are obliged to ensure that teachers are trained in the relevant means and methods to make the above possible.

That the implementation of this basic right to education for peo­ple with disabilities presents a major challenge was highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO). In June 2011, WHO published the ‘World Report on Disability’, revising upwards its estimate of the number of people with disabilities in the world from 10 to 15 percent, meaning that there are now more than 1 billion disabled people in the world. What this also indicates is that, in the Global South, where 70 percent of the population is under 30, there are some 300-400 million children with disabilities. Accord­ing to the Washington Group on Disability Statistics, a number of recent door-to-door surveys in Zambia and Uganda found that 14 percent of children have disabilities. Many states such as India and Pakistan officially record only 2 to 3 percent of children with disabilities. This under-representation of the true figure leads to insufficient resources being set aside and inadequate planning to implement the inclusion of children with disabilities in mainstream schools.

Another issue is lack of clarity about what constitutes inclu­sive education. Inclusion should not be confused with integration in which the disabled child has to manage in a largely unadapted mainstream school, without adjustments and support, and with teachers and peers not prepared to welcome and support them. Be­cause integration tends not to be successful, some posit that chil­dren with disabilities need to be educated in special schools, which are very resource intensive and can only ever be available to the very few. These types of institutions do not prepare disabled stu­dents for life in society, and have been shown to mainly provide an inferior education when compared to good inclusive mainstream schools.

UNESCO defines inclusive education as “a process of address­ing and responding to the diversity of needs of all learners through increasing participation in learning, cultures and communities, and reducing exclusion within and from education. It involves changes and modifications in content, approaches, structures and strategies, with a common vision which covers all children of appropriate age range and a conviction that it is the responsibility of the regular system to educate all children.” While this serves as a good overall definition, a twin-track approach to include children with disabili­ties that identifies the specific barriers they face and prepares teach­ers to deal with them is also needed.

Throughout the world there are examples of good practice in which inclusive education has taken root in schools, districts or whole countries. A number of lessons can be drawn from their suc­cess to help develop inclusive education elsewhere. For example, involving parents of children with disabilities and disabled peo­ple’s organisations (DPOs), as they have a greater understanding of what is required to challenge widespread prejudices. There also needs to be more training for parents and disabled people, as well as improved instruction for teachers on inclusive education and how to incorporate child-centred approaches in the classroom. Ral­lying local communities to campaign for improved resources can also help, for example, to make local buildings more accessible and ‘disabled-friendly’. While all the above are important, peer support has been shown to be the biggest and most effective resource for inclusion, so mobilising peers is an essential requirement.

Funding is another area that needs overhauling. Corruption needs to be challenged and eradicated. There must be an increase in aid and donations from the international community, with con­trol of these funds handed over to DPOs and parents. Furthermore, available funding should be targeted for low-tech solutions to help disabled people improve their quality of life.

And what of the role of governments and policy-makers? They have the power to ensure that there is one ministry for all children’s education; that there is a flexible grade system and child-centred curriculum; that incentives for families to enrol their disabled chil­dren are provided; that disabled teachers receive adequate training and are recruited by schools; and that inclusive education is effec­tively promoted.

Developing inclusive education for children with disabilities has the potential to improve the school system for all (see boxes). Fun­damentally, inclusive education is a question of attitudinal change at every level of society. Without this transformation, human rights will continue to be trampled on and a great deal of human potential will go to waste.

About the author:

Richard Rieser is an international consultant on inclusive education and disability equality. He is author of Implementing Inclusive Education: A Commonwealth Guide to Implementing Article 24 of the UNCRPD


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