To achieve ‘learning for all’, we must create inclusive systems for students with disabilities

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We should be looking at educational opportunities for all children and young people with disabilities.  (Photo: Masaru Goto / World Bank)

While schools and educators aim at more inclusive approaches across the globe, it’s important to acknowledge that mainstream education settings can unknowingly exclude deaf and hard of hearing people. 

According to the World Federation of the Deaf, out of the 70 million deaf people in the world, 56 million receive no education at all.  This is especially true among deaf women and girls, and people living in developing countries.

This is part of the learning crisis that we at the World Bank are concerned about.

Intersectionality: disability and the deaf and hard of hearing community

In school year 2014, about 263 million children and youth aged between 6-17 were not in school.  An estimated one-third of these out-of-school children at the primary level have a disability.

Deaf and hard of hearing people are defined as disabled because the world around them is not visually or linguistically accessible to them.  Deaf people are considered both as being part of the disability community, but also a cultural linguistic minority.  Deaf children attending schools learn best in a bilingual environment in which they are taught in their native sign language, and to read and write in the local language. Currently, only up to two percent of deaf children around the globe access their education through formal sign language.  

A deaf and hard of hearing learner can be physically included but academically excluded

At the World Bank, Katherine "Katie" Giles - our colleague from the social development  team- shared her story with senior management and education colleagues. We learned about Katie’s education journey as a deaf person in the United States.

Katie shares her story with colleagues at the World Bank. (Photo: Clement Hacket)

She said: “ As a child, I had progressive hearing loss. I was given a ‘mainstream’ education in an oral educational setting. I was a ‘successful’ student in a mainstream setting; I had top grades and was active in sports and club activities,”

“One of the reasons I was able to be a ‘successful’ mainstreamed student was because I had access to language at home.  My mother, who is also hard of hearing, is a retired special needs teacher.  I was raised in a bilingual (where I communicated in American Sign Language and written English) household with a parent who was well equipped to advocate on my behalf.  My mother also understood the value of reading/writing; taught me these skills well before I entered school,”

However, I didn’t really thrive until I entered a bilingual education setting. Until then, my social and educational opportunities slowly diminished. Upon completing my secondary education, I was exhausted and unmotivated,”

“It wasn’t until I attended Gallaudet University , the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students, that I realized the joy and ease of learning.

 “The simple change of entering a bilingual environment brought out a new energy and love of learning from me. At Gallaudet- where my peers, my mentors, professors, and administrators all shared my language and culture- I felt my desire to learn rapidly accelerating.  After completing my Bachelor’s of Social Work, I immediately pursued dual Master’s degrees in International Development and Public Administration. This was a goal I had never dreamed of doing until I entered a bilingual learning environment,”

In the development of inclusive education, it’s crucial to make the best possible decisions from the students’ point of view.  We believe that everyone working in education should be asking: How can we ensure inclusion and equal opportunities for all students?

Emphasizing family and community involvement

Deaf children often face stigma and social isolation in mainstream school settings. More than about 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents.  Often, that child is the first deaf person the parent have ever met. The inability of parents of deaf children to communicate with their children in their native language, sign language might make their children less confident and sets them back as they enter the classroom.

The process of inclusive education towards providing access, participation and achieving the goal of ‘learning for all’ requires a multi-sectoral approach. It’s a human development initiative that must support teachers, principals, and other school staff the best possible way. 

Ministries of education, health, social protection, labor and others need to collaborate and coordinate. In addition, partnerships with other sectors, family and the community including NGOs and disabled people’s organizations are essential. 

Putting student learning in as the center

In most countries, the role of special schools is changing as they contemplate the process of developing inclusive education.  According to the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report (2016), 40 percent of students with disabilities overall were in special schools in the 2014 school year.

Mainstream education might be unable to cater to students with disabilities usually because teachers aren’t competent, specialized staff (e.g. special education teachers, school psychologists or speech therapists) are unavailable, and school buildings are inadequately designed.  As a result, a big share of school-aged children with disabilities are left out.

Those that do manage to enter school might have inadequate support for learning.  In such cases, students may be physically included but remain academically and socially excluded. As in Katie’s story, there are many ways a student with disabilities can be excluded. It should be noted that having an interpreter doesn’t always provide opportunities for deaf students to form friendships with their peers.

Learning from good examples

There is no single ‘recipe’ to follow in the process of making education more inclusive. However, there are ‘menus’ of good and innovative practices we can learn from. In Kenya, the Ministry of Education has an interesting program for mainstream school settings.  They teach all children in a bilingual setting to eliminate classroom inequalities previously experienced by the cultural linguistic minority of deaf students.

At the World Bank, we’re preparing for the release of the flagship World Development Report 2018: Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. The report asks pertinent questions: Are all students acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to thrive, and if not, why not? What can countries do to promote learning and skills for all children and youth? 

We are solidifying our commitment to ensuring inclusive and equal quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. As we do that, we are also looking, seriously and critically, at educational opportunities for all children and young people with disabilities.

Find out more about World Bank Group Education on our  website  and on Twitter.

See the World Bank overview on disability.


Hanna Alasuutari

Senior Education Specialist

Katherine Nicole Giles

Katherine (Katie) Giles Bean, Consultant, Office of the Global Disability Advisor in the Social, Urban, Rural, and Resilience (GP SURR)

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