Reaching the most marginalized: a human right to inclusive education

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Reaching the most marginalized: a human right to inclusive education

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“We have an attitudinal problem and a failure of the public policy imagination to account for the full experiences that children with disabilities in vulnerable contexts embody...This is not a question of misfortune; it is a question of injustice...institutional and structural exclusion and oppression. If we are to really reach those furthest behind, we require a moment of reckoning that society has let down children with disabilities. And we have to act to change that”

These words from SDG advocate Eddie Ndopu, shared during the Disability Inclusive Education Forum - Reaching the most marginalised held on December 4, 2020, ring true this Human Rights Day. 30-year-old Eddie, who is in discussions with aerospace companies to be the first person with a disability in space, reminded attendees of the Forum that human rights apply to all and that denying access to education and opportunity is an injustice. Particularly, for the billions of young people who have been forced out of schools due to COVID-19 and those already excluded like refugees, displaced students and children and young people with disabilities. The Forum, held the day after the United Nations annual International Day for Persons with Disabilities, issued a timely reminder that, in an unpredictable 2020, children and young people already facing the greatest barriers and highest risk of exclusion are being left further behind, without the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Hosted by the Government of Norway, Education Cannot Wait, the Global Campaign for Education, Special Olympics, International Disability Alliance (IDA), International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC) and Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies, the Forum’s message was not lost on the large audience of self-advocates, organisations of persons with disabilities multilateral, UN and NGO organizations and government representatives who tuned in. Speakers included Norwegian Minister Dag Ulstein, Ecuador’s Vice Minister for Education Isabela Maldonado, Chair of the African Disability Forum and board member of the International Disability Alliance Mr. Alzouma Maiga Idriss, Special Olympian Alejandra Perez, self-advocate Salma Eltabbakh from Egypt and more, who echoed that the basic right to education, especially for children and young people with a disability, has been impacted as resources become more strained and they become harder to reach.

The Forum sought to encourage local, national, and international decision makers to ensure that inclusive education for learners with disabilities - particularly in humanitarian emergencies - should be a key focus of education systems, delivery and planning as well as COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. These children and young people, along their families and communities are in need of more support than ever, and countries must step up to the commitments made in Sustainable Development Goal 4 and in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities when it comes to making quality, equitable and inclusive education a reality for learners with disabilities. This resonates in a message from the IDA, which strongly believes that “building a truly inclusive education system is the only way to achieve SDG 4 for all children including those with disabilities.”

Ensuring a positive outlook, several co-hosts and speakers shared indications and descriptions of progress on this agenda. For example, Graham Lang, Chief of Education for Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the global fund for education in emergencies, shared with the audience that, “ECW will increasingly focus efforts to ensure that our investments support the design and implementation of inclusive investments to support children and adolescents with disabilities with inclusive education opportunities, which is their right.” Eight distinct breakout sessions following the Forum were attended by a network of advocates, organizations of persons with disabilities, service delivery groups and policy experts also enabled attendees to understand more about what can be done, and how, to support learners with disabilities in emergency settings. From responsive planning, to better service delivery, to overcoming barriers including the impact of COVID-19, speakers like Sk Golam Mohiuddin, an Inclusive Education Facilitator from Bangladesh, and William Obella, a Humanity and Inclusion Project Officer on behalf of the IDDC, shared a common dedication to thinking ‘outside the box’ and shared firsthand accounts of innovative service delivery and the challenges of education during COVID 19. For instance, Vice Minister Maldonado shared that inclusive digital, radio and TV learning services and private tutors have been rolled out in Ecuador.

Highlights of the Forum included the large number of passionate, determined and inspiring self-advocates and students with disabilities, who advocated for their basic right for an opportunity to reach their fullest potential and be counted.  Many urged organisations for people with disabilities, global education in emergency networks, governments and donors to ensure their needs are fully integrated and not an add-on or afterthought within education settings.  Moderator Laila Atshan from Palestine, shared that “separation is illusion” and, as a blind child, she was only expected to reach 6th grade at best, but exceeded expectations by attending Harvard. Egyptian advocate Salma Eltabakkh talked about how to ensure all students “respect the culture of difference” in integrated schools, as she shared her own high school experience, absent of inclusive assistance, ostracized by peers who didn’t understand Down syndrome and disregarded by potential employers before she discovered a career in supporting students with disabilities. Special Olympian Alejandra Perez gave advice for a better future through, “the union between people with disabilities and people without disabilities.” She said, “We in Special Olympics live this... Sport is a refuge. I speak for all of our athletes, not just myself. Through sport...we can learn more about inclusion.”

The co-hosting organisations are now working together to release recommendations that build on the outcomes of the Forum. These organizations will work with the Government of Norway and other organisers of the 2022 Global Disability Summit (GDS), following the UK’s hosting in 2018, to ensure that inclusive education - particularly in emergencies - is high on the agenda for action. The Government of Norway welcomed last week’s Forum and its outcomes. Norweigian Minister for Development Dag Ulstein shared his vision for the Forum and the 2022 GDS: “Norway is committed to the inclusion agenda and is delighted to host the 2022 Global Disability Summit, because we want to ensure that political focus is not veering away from commitments made for the improvement of the human rights situation for persons with disabilities. We believe inclusive education is a vital part of achieving SDG4 and ensuring that no one is left behind, because everyone has a right to education, including children and youth living with disabilities. If they are not provided access to education, we will not achieve SDG4. That is why we co-hosted this Forum. We hope to work with the education community, civil society and disabled persons organisations and advocates over the coming months to plan collaboratively how inclusive education particularly in emergencies, will feature and be prioritized in the Summit.”

To the Forum’s co-hosts, it is unacceptable that 60 years since the adoption of the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, children and young people with disabilites are still subject to systemic disrimination in many education systems around the world, moreso in emergency contexts. With this in mind, a sense of impatience, frustration and urgency to act became clear.  Nafisa Baboo, Global Campaign for Education Board Member reinforced that, “donors must hardwire disability in all education in emergency programmes, and make sure funding sufficiently provides for better identification, inclusive education teacher training, and the needed accommodations and supports for children with disabilities.” Echoing Eddie Ndopu, Canadian MP Mike Lake, joined by his son Jaden Lake, who is a Special Olympian with autism and an accomplished library assistant, shared that he was “tired of having the same conversations.” And that, “the world is better off when children with disabilities are included, in school, and reaching their full potential.”  The hope of all the organisations listed below, as we recover from a truly global pandemic and progress towards the 2022 Global Disability Summit, is that we don’t lose the momentum and collective will to achieve the human rights for every child through inclusive education. 

The rich discussion at the Forum led to the following, non-exhaustive, initial recommendations:

Community recommendations

Policy recommendations

  • All students with disabilities have a right to quality, equitable and inclusive education and should be taught together with students with and without disabilities in inclusive and accessible schools and classrooms.
  • A change in culture, policy and practice is needed, with dedicated efforts to:

          ○      identify children with disabilities who are out-of-school, remove barriers to inclusive education, transition from special/segregated settings towards truly inclusive learning settings, and strengthen education systems to reach all learners.

  • Universal Design for Learning needs to be adopted in order to make education truly inclusive of all, including learners with disabilities. Curriculum reforms and support to adopt pedagogy and provide teacher training all foster Universal Design for Learning.
  • Diverse languages, including sign language and tactile sign language, and modes of communication need to be used throughout the system with teachers who are fluent.

Financing recommendations

  • Significant investments are needed to ensure accessibility of all classrooms, education facilities and teaching materials and access to assistive products and technology.
  • National and international governments and donors should prioritise increased and international investments in catalyzing system level changes to make education inclusive on one hand, and also invest in specific disability-related support services that are essential for learners with disabilities, on the other.

Thank you to the International Disability Alliance, International Disability and Development Consortium, Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies, Education Cannot Wait, the Government of Norway, Special Olympics, the Global Campaign for Education, Light for the World and the Jesuit Refugee Service for their support for this joint press release.

To find out more and get more involved:

>> View the recording of the Forum here

>> Watch this video on disability inclusive education

>> Join the Inclusive Education and Early Childhood Community of Practice hosted by the Global Campaign for Education-US

>> Support the COVID-19 Children & Young People with Disabilities Global Statement and Recommendations, Global Disability Children & Young People's Charter or Become a member of CCYDN Commonwealth Children and Youth Disability Network

>> Follow @educannotwait or visit You can also join Education Cannot Wait as a civil society or youth representative.