Disability and Education: From Charity to Investment


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Today, on World Autism Day, I’d like to highlight the impact of education on what persons with disabilities are capable of achieving.  More than one billion people – 15% of the world’s population – experience some form of disability. One-fifth of the estimated global total, up to 190 million people, encounter significant disabilities. Persons with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse socio-economic outcomes than persons without disabilities, such as less education, worse health outcomes, less employment, and higher poverty rates.Most persons with disabilities are in developing countries.

Last month, I had the honor of hosting Dr. Kamal Lamichhane (University of Tsukuba) at the World Bank. His personal story is remarkable.  Due to his visual impairment, Kamal did not go to school in his native Nepal until he turned 12. He would later go on to complete his doctoral degree in disability studies and on coin the term “poverty of awareness”.

Kamalpresented the findings of his recent book Disability, Education and Employment in Developing Countries: From Charity to Investment.  Kamal made a solid case, based on his excellent econometric skills, using data from Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and the Philippines.

People with disabilities benefit greatly from education and make solid contributions to society.  Investment in human capital helps them find good jobs, one of the most important factors in promoting social inclusion and economic development. When education and labor markets are made inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities, their well-being improves and so do the prospects of their families. In addition, society benefits when people are able to use their human capital to full potential.

The returns to investment in the education of persons with disabilities are two to three times higher than that of persons without disabilities.  Kamal estimated the returns to education for persons with disabilities in Nepal.  He used unique data from persons with disabilities combined with national survey data.  The estimated rate of returns is very high, ranging from 19 to 26%.  This is compared to a global average of just over 10%.  There are strong policy implications emanating from his work.  To name just two, there’s aneed to address the supply-side constraints that limit access to quality education and labor market issues.

Going forward we need to do at least five things:

1.       Make the inclusive education call more meaningful by specifying what we actually mean.For example, returns are even higher if we invest in cost-effective policies and programs such as DAISY/ePub and sign language.;

2.       Collect data and encourage others to collect data that includes disability;

3.       Strengthen the evidence base by conducting rigorous impact evaluations of promising interventions that promote quality learning by persons with disabilities;

4.       Crowd in the private sector and promote public-private partnerships that give us access to the best technologies for persons with disabilities. After all, the fastest growing segment of the education market is e-learning and education gaming, at 25% per year according to GSV Asset Management; and

5.       Adopt indicators of inclusion that reduce our “poverty of awareness,” such as integrating as much as possible children with disabilities in the classroom and removing employment barriers.

There is a general lack of awareness of what persons with disabilities are capable of doing as well as  lackof awareness of the numbers, what they mean, and what we can do to include them in the development process.Inclusive education – education for all, learning for all – are praiseworthy goals. It’s time to make them real.

What initiatives can you think of that will make quality education more accessible to persons with disabilities?


Follow Harry Patrinos on Twitter @hpatrinos

Follow the World Bank Group Education team on Twitter @wbg_education 


Alberto Treves
April 04, 2015

Thank you Harry to bring up the subject the subject of disability and education. From the educational facilities point of view, it is very disconcerting to see recently built school buildings with no ramps, no accommodations for wheel chairs, no disabled bathrooms, or any other facility to accommodate students with special needs. Unfortunately, this happens within the framework of existing legislation in the majority of the countries I worked in, mandating the need to provide these minimal interventions that could make a big difference to an important number of boys and girls.

Harry Patrinos
April 06, 2015

Thank you Alberto. I agree that we need to monitor closely the standards involved with school buildings and ensure that access for all is guaranteed.

Gustavo Arcia
April 06, 2015

Harry Patrinos has brought up an underestimated issue in education policy. Although most education budgets I have analyzed (and they have been many), include funding for students with special needs, never once during discussions with policy makers I have seen the issue of educating the disable brought up. I don't think the lack of discussion reflects neglect on part of policy makers, but simply a low level of awareness. Poverty of awareness is indeed a good description of what goes on in policymaking. To Harry's five things we should do, I would add informing policy makers and key education stakeholders about the need to invest in students with disability to move the dialogue from a simple expression of compassion to national self interest. Once policy makers become more aware of the benefits--both human and economic--of investing in the disabled other good things will follow.

Harry Patrinos
April 06, 2015

Thank you Gustavo. I agree with your points. In fact, I will add to my list of five actions the following from you:
Informing policy makers and key education stakeholders about the need to invest in students with disability to move the dialogue from a simple expression of compassion to national self-interest.

April 06, 2015

Thank you, Harry! What a great way to honor World Autism Awareness Day.
As the Global Disability Advisor for the Bank, I was delighted to read your excellent reflections from a rich and informative BBL with Dr Kamal Lamichhand
While primary education has long been viewed as essential for a child’s full development, this logic has typically not been extended to children with disabilities. The reality for most children with disabilities in developing countries is dire. The five building blocks you set out are a great start. I might suggest a sixth; costing for inclusion. In my experience, national level policy makers and education stakeholders are anxious about the cost and rightly so. There will, inevitably, be an expansion/inclusion cost in enrolling some children with disabilities, but is does not have to be exorbitant. I believe we can contribute significantly to this agenda by; being deliberate about inclusion in our discussions with policy makers; generating more knowledge on what works, what does not work, what are the hidden barriers and to my sixth block- the cost of inclusion.

Harry Patrinos
April 06, 2015

Thank you Charlotte. While I allude to cost-effectiveness, let’s make it clearer by adopting a 7th action, namely collect cost information and calculate cost-benefit ratios.

April 06, 2015

Thank you Harry for a very raising a very important topic in education. I work in the area of policy in inclusive education in South Africa. After working in the area of curriculum, early childhood education and other similar portfolios I have arrived at the conclusion that the philosophy and practice of inclusion can help developing nations to improve pass rates and througput rates. When you move away from individual deficit towards establishing the systemic barriers that militate against a childs learning more children will succeed. The greatest barrier to good teaching and learning is attitude. Attitude is shaped by philosophy and how one is socialised into educational theory. With a bent towards inclusion, teachers and educationists in general can make a major impact on improving literacy and numeracy. Most literacy and numeracy challenges arise out of barriers to learning that relate to barriers in the system rather than individual deficit. Individual deficit understandings is related to the old special education paragdimg. In Cape Town we are developing full-service schools that will ultimately accept children with disabilities as well as other barriers to learning. Special education has it value but it has entrenched the notion that children have to be segregated into special settings. If all teachers are exposed to the discouse of inclusive education more children can be accommodated in the mainstream of education. In any society the numbers of children with disabilities are a very small percentage. We will develop an online course exposing a large number of teachers with specialized knowledge in various disabilities. This will also be made available to NGOs, parents and other stakeholders. For full-service schools, there will be more indepth training. In the medium and long-term we believe that most children with disabilities with accommodated in the mainstream of education. We need to have more conversations around inclusive education. To Harrys five points I will add mainstreaming the discourse of barriers to learning

Harry Patrinos
April 06, 2015

Dear Sigamoney, I agree. We need to raise our awareness. The point you make about mainstreaming the discourse is vital. More discussion is needed to clarify the issues, share information and experience, and then take decisive action. Thankyou

April 06, 2015

Thank you for raising this important and often neglected issue. As a parent with a child with severe autism the importance of awareness and inclusion of persons with disability has a special resonance (and is often a daily challenge!).
While the World has made great gains in terms of awareness and inclusion in areas such as gender, race, sexuality and religion etc, the area of disability remains largely hidden and neglected.
At the institutional, societal and individual levels people remain poorly equipped to manage issues associated with disability. For instance, just a few days ago in the city of Canberra, Australia, a school Principal was sacked after the media reported that her school was placing autistic children in a metal cage. In the state of Maryland in the US the education system (public and private) does not provide access to relevant services for many children with disabilities. By contrast, during a recent posting to Amman Jordan I discovered - much to my surprise - that in this developing country a full array of services for children with disabilities are provided largely by the private sector.
So in developing countries the situation for persons with disabilities may be just as variable as high income countries - ranging from good by some measures to appalling in others. The key point though is that we simply do not know.
As you point out, documenting demographic data, services and initiatives for persons with disabilities would be a good start and would be fully consistent with the Charter and objectives of WBG.
Finally, we have a Doing Business methodology that measures and compares regulatory systems globally - we should consider a similar global approach focusing on inclusion for the disabled.
Once again, thank you for your excellent post.

Harry Patrinos
April 06, 2015

Dear Stephen, thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. In addition to the disappointing stories from Australia and the USA, I was heartened to hear about the schools in Amman that offer such services. We need to track these experience and share lessons. I also share your view on measurement.

Maria Reina
April 08, 2015

Thank you, Harry, for this post! I am grateful not only because the subject you have chosen but also for the level of discussion your post has brought. This blog is visited by many people around the world. Your post brings a solid support to our cause (truly inclusive education), and it is very timely, indeed. Precisely, a Day of General Discussion (DGD) on the right to education for persons with disabilities, will be held on 15 April 2015, at Palais des Nations, Geneva. From my country (Argentina) an Association of people with disabilities I belong (Association Azul) has already submitted a contribution and will present it on the 15th. Summarily it focuses on the following lines: 1. In the Global South, children and adolescents with disabilities continue to be excluded from mainstream schools, and, if any, they receive low quality education at special schools and initiate there a life of segregation and non participation in the community. In our experience, including disabled students in mainstream schools is a more cost-effective than the segregated system and better reflects the principles of true inclusion. 2.Need for the all the agents in the educational system to receive effective training including disability rights. 3. Need consider marginalized groups, including people with severe speech impairment and multiple disabilities. 4. Need to include methods of augmentative and alternative communication and simple language whenever we talk about communication. 5. Need to consider the access to communication and information whenever we talk about accessibility.

Harry Patrinos
April 13, 2015

Dear Maria,
Thank you for the excellent comments. Do let us know the outcomes of the meeting in Geneva.