As world leaders met in New York last week, an incredible breakthrough happened. Their public commitment to tackling the global education crisis is a huge step forward for all of us working with children in developing countries. But while we celebrate this milestone, it’s important to recognize that this is not the end of the story.
The scale of the challenge for children with disabilities
The international community has long rallied around the principle of leaving no one behind, but in practice this ambition is a long way off. While great strides have been made towards increasing girls’ participation in education for instance, the same cannot be said for children with disabilities.
There are more than 100 million children with disabilities across the world – and in developing countries, 90% never go to school. This means tens of millions of children are prevented from fully participating in society, from ever achieving their potential.
Even for those children with disabilities who make it into the classroom, genuine access and inclusion is rare. So often I’ve met with children who are physically in a school, but not meaningfully in education. Without specialist training, teachers are ill-equipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities, which often leads to students being even more isolated, and to both students and teachers feeling frustrated and demoralized.
Innovation on a global scale is needed
For disabled children in the developing world, these huge challenges must be tackled. They need big, bold, innovative solutions. But taking on an issue like this isn’t something new. The work done to get more women and girls into school shows what can be done with an ambitious global commitment backed up by political will.
We’ve seen pioneering, culturally sensitive projects set up: everything from boosting the number of women teachers and building girls toilets, to tackling parental resistance. This level of innovation is needed for children with disabilities too.
I work with deaf children across the developing world, trying to ensure that they get access to the education they deserve. Inclusive education is often seen as making sure that all deaf and other disabled children go to mainstream schools, but huge improvements need to be made in specialist schools too. While this situation isn’t easy to resolve, my years with Deaf Child Worldwide have taught me three core lessons that any global initiative should bear in mind to improve access to meaningful, inclusive education:
- Work with parents
- The early years are essential
- Teachers need specialist skills and knowledge
All too often, programs to support children focus solely on the child and the school, and forget the other crucial ingredient – parents. All our work in East Africa, South Asia and Latin America points to how influential the parents of deaf children are. Education doesn’t start at school, it starts as soon as the child is born. Because 90% of deaf children are born into hearing families, parents need help to communicate effectively with their child. The majority of deaf children I have met have started primary school with little or no language, meaning they have no foundation on which to develop literacy and numeracy skills.
Research consistently shows that investing in early years’ education is one of the most effective ways to support children’s development. This is even more true for children with disabilities – a point our early education centers for deaf children in Bangladesh have really proved. Teaching deaf children the basics of Bangla Sign Language before they go to primary school means language and communication development is accelerated, their confidence is boosted, and they’re in a far stronger position to learn by the time they get to the classroom. All of this contributes to children being more likely to go into education, and stay in education.
Teaching is a job that takes training, expertise and vocation – but to deliver genuinely inclusive education, being a good teacher is not enough. Every disabled child is different and teachers need training and support to understand how best each can learn. Mainstream school teachers must be supported with training and resources and, where necessary, with additional specialist support in the classroom to help make their lessons accessible for children with a wide range of needs. We also need to harness digital technology, and encourage disabled adults and young people to support and inspire children both in and out of school. There is little point getting disabled children into the classroom if they won’t learn anything once they are there.
We don’t have all the answers
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. We need to work out how to break down the barriers that leave so many disabled children out of school. We need to think creatively and trial programs in different contexts and cultures. We need to gather robust data on what works and what doesn’t. And on top of that, we need the global political will to tackle this devastating problem that is failing tens of millions of the world’s most vulnerable. Until then, we will never truly be able to talk of leaving no one behind.