The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rethink how to promote learning and resilience in education systems, especially given clear signs of growing inequity. Learners with disabilities are among the most marginalized groups and the risks the pandemic poses for them are still essentially sidelined or considered as an afterthought. It is critical to leverage lessons from the pandemic for learners with disabilities and rethink how all learners can benefit from good pedagogical practices which utilize principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as well as individualized support.
The World Bank is moving forward to ensure that its education projects and programs are disability inclusive by 2025. This is the first of 10 Commitments on Disability Inclusion announced in 2018 and guidance for disability inclusion in education is provided in the Inclusive Education Resource Guide.
December 3 marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The 13th Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) has been organized virtually this week. It is an ideal moment to consider what are the critical shifts in mindsets needed to achieve inclusive education systems for all learners, including learners with disabilities as guided by the Sustainable Development Goal 4 and the Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities.
Inclusive education as part of sector planning and whole of government approach
A broader inclusive lens including disability inclusion must be at the center of any education intervention. Inclusive education sector analysis and planning is critical in this process. A comprehensive approach to support disability-inclusive education must focus on both making the overall provision of general education services inclusive and focusing interventions also directly to support learners with disabilities. Inclusive education requires a whole of government approach. It can contribute significantly to broader social inclusion. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for rethinking education system development with an inclusive lens considering also disability-inclusive social protection and health system development and wider family and community support.
Attention of every teacher and school leader is needed
The role of teachers in inclusive education is fundamental. Inclusive education should not be a special skillset owned by only a few professionals, even if it is important to educate some teachers to become experts in individualized approaches to support learners with disabilities and provide effective support to other teachers and learners within general education classrooms. All teachers and school leaders need to be supported in understanding that every learner matters and matters equally. This is the only way to ensure that quality inclusive education becomes a reality for learners with disabilities.
The shift to virtual provision of education due to the pandemic has had a huge impact on children with disabilities, leading to learning losses when the social learning experience has not been supported by in-person learning, reasonable accommodations, or specific support services. In many cases, accessibility of remote learning solutions for learners with disabilities might not be even considered. It is important to ensure accessible alternatives to support learning of students who might use sign language, require screen readers of other assistive devises or specific support at home. Community members, parents, caregivers, and non-governmental organizations can all play a role in supporting inclusive education through a multi-professional and -sectoral approach, for example through phone support or home visits respecting social/physical distancing in these difficult times.
Inclusive education pays off
A fundamental mind shift is also needed towards redesigning policies and funding to support more inclusive education systems. Concentrating on ‘low hanging fruits’ does not take countries far enough in creating more inclusive education systems. Profound cultural shifts, longer term strategies, and adequate planning are all needed, with specific short and mid-term targets to monitor progress. The pandemic is putting pressure on government budgets to meet competing urgent demands in multiple sectors. Yet especially today it is important to invest in inclusive education and broader human capital.
Children with disabilities continue to lag behind in both educational attainment and learning, resulting in lower expected earnings in adulthood. This is the case globally, as well as in Africa. The World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI) provides an intuitive measure of a country’s productive potential. The productive potential of individuals depends in part on the number of years of education they complete and how much they learn while in school. It is clear that due to lower educational attainment and learning, persons with disabilities are less likely to achieve their full productivity potential. In Africa for example, analysis suggests that children who have difficulty seeing in the classroom perform less well on standardized tests, and yet we know how to ensure that these children can benefit from school eye health programs.
Children with disabilities are also more likely to experience multidimensional poverty, including lack of access to health services, lack of employment opportunities, and higher risks of social exclusion as well as poor quality of life if they are out of school. There is a strong economic argument to invest in education of children with disabilities. The labor market benefits from education are very similar for individuals with or without disabilities. Our research from Africa shows that completing primary school is not enough: children need to go to secondary school to reap larger benefits. In addition, the returns to education are the same for individuals with or without disabilities. This means the benefits of investments in education for children with disabilities are as large as those for other children. Given that human capital wealth accounts for two thirds of the changing wealth of nations, this provides a strong argument to invest in the education of children with disabilities.
We know how to implement programs to serve all learners, including learners with disabilities. We also know that making schools more inclusive benefits all students. As the World Bank works towards fulfilling the commitment to ensure that all its education projects and programs will be disability inclusive, we invite you to share your own experiences and ideas on what can be done to improve educational opportunities for all children at scale.