An Uphill Struggle? Equity in Higher Education for People with Disabilities

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Co-authored by Jennifer Pye, Tertiary Education Team

ImageGlobally the disabled population continues to be the most disadvantaged and marginalized group within society with limited access to educational opportunities. According to UNESCO’s Global Education for All Monitoring Report 2010, “disability is one of the least visible but most potent factors in educational marginalization.”

Today, the U.N.'s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, provides us with an opportunity to share preliminary findings from our on-going work on equity of access and success in tertiary education for people with disabilities.

It did not take our team long to appreciate how little international research and reliable data exist on the situation of students with disabilities in World Bank client countries. Gaining an accurate insight turned out to be a challenging undertaking; anecdotal evidence suggests wide disparities in educational access and success at all levels of education.

Given the data and research dearth we included international media in our sources and, we reached out to partner organizations in the field such as Sightsavers, Handicap International and the World Blind Union. Such sources provide striking examples of individual students with diverse disabilities, detailing their numerous struggles to overcome environmental, attitudinal and structural barriers to accessing educational opportunities. Additionally, a picture of ad hoc and fragmented approaches to the provision of tertiary educational services for students with disabilities emerges.

It is useful to remind ourselves that tertiary education systems have traditionally catered to political, intellectual and professional elites. Admission systems were, and in most cases still are, contingent on specific qualifications or competencies awarded by the formal education system, often resulting in the exclusion of marginalized groups in general and, specifically, people with disabilities.

Over the last 20 years, however, we have witnessed, a slow but steady change in the pattern of access to tertiary education, often referred to as the ”massification” of tertiary education systems. This phenomenon has been accompanied by a global policy shift, triggered by rising societal concerns for issues of equity and access to educational opportunities for those groups who have traditionally been underrepresented within tertiary education. The adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in December 2006, has effectively directed attention towards the rights of people with disabilities. As more and more countries are ratifying the Convention (Status Dec 10: 147), thereby legally subscribing to its premise, disability is attracting increasing consideration by both national legal systems and policy makers worldwide.

While the fact that equity concerns are being voiced more forcefully is a positive development, the implementation of both existing and emerging anti-discrimination legislation varies greatly from one country to another and from one tertiary education institution to the next. Arguably, at the level of World Bank client countries, people with disabilities still only appear at the margins of the policy debates, with persons from low socio-economic backgrounds, indigenous people, ethnic minorities, and people from rural or isolated areas taking precedence over issues affecting access and success for people with disabilities.

While in OECD countries the policy debates turn around success in education and access to the labor market, the focus in a number of low and middle income countries is still shaped by concerns for access to educational opportunities. This situation is often reflected in institutional attempts to retrofit the physical environment. A case in point is Delhi University in India. Following an access audit of about 150 buildings, the university ordered the necessary changes be made to ensure that college buildings were disabled-friendly. In a number of countries, notably India and Brazil legislation is supportive of access for people with disabilities; however, limited policy attention is directed towards students’ retention and progression through tertiary education. As a result many students with disabilities drop out in their first year indicating that the barriers are too high to overcome and that tertiary education institutions rarely manage to cater adequately to their specific educational needs.

It is in this context that Levin refers to the challenges of adopting equitable approaches to tertiary education, stating that “issues of cost-effectiveness become very difficult because they get entangled with issues of fundamental human rights.” (Levin, 2003). Unless the international community shows a strong and sustained commitment to international data collection efforts coupled with targeted, evidence-based research that provide national and institutional policy makers with the necessary tools to advance equitable policy making, I suspect that students with disabilities will continue to face an uphill struggle in accessing and, perhaps more importantly, succeeding at the level of tertiary education.


Jamil Salmi

Tertiary Education Coordinator

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