The price of exclusion: Disability and education in Africa

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More than one billion people around the world experience some form of disability. Individuals with disabilities have, on average, poorer health, lower levels of employment and earnings, and higher poverty rates. Children with disabilities are especially at a disadvantage when it comes to enrolling and completing school but also how much they learn while in school. This is especially acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, where our latest research, The Challenge of Inclusive Education in Africa, shows that disability gaps in education are increasing.

Every year, on December 3, the world celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. At the World Bank, we are committed to accelerating disability-inclusive development as part of overall education sector reforms. The process of developing an inclusive education system and society needs to be holistic and utilize a multi-sectoral approach. One crucial part of this is disability inclusive data collection and analysis. With financial support from USAID, as part of the Disability-Inclusive Education in Africa Program Trust Fund, we are launching a series of studies on inclusive education in Africa, to shine a light on challenges and solutions.
The first report is about challenges and its main findings are the following:
Enrollment and attainment
Primary school completion rates are 10 percentage points lower for girls with disabilities than for girls without disabilities. For boys, the disability gap in primary completion rates is 13 points. The analysis is based on census data for 11 countries.*
Gaps are also large for secondary education completion and children with disabilities are much more likely to never enroll in school at all. Across the board disability gaps have been steadily increasing over the last 20 years.
Learning while in school
Even when children with disabilities manage to remain in school, they perform on average less well on mathematics and reading tests such as PASEC in Francophone Africa for which results are available for 10 countries.*
This is one of the reasons why only half of children with disabilities of primary school completion age can read and write, and only one in four complete secondary school. There is a need for further research in Africa and elsewhere to better understand the barriers faced by children with disabilities, to make them visible and find solutions for overcoming them. 
Teacher perceptions and lack of inclusive teacher education programs
Multiple factors lead to disability gaps in education. According to teacher perceptions on the reasons why children drop out of school, lack of adequate infrastructure for children with disabilities is a major issue.
In addition, among a dozen types of in-service training provided to teachers, training related to inclusive education is the least commonly provided. Teachers are simply not equipped to promote inclusive education at a time when international evidence suggests benefits from inclusive education for all children, not only those with disabilities. There is an urgent need to make sure countries have inclusive pre- and in-service teacher education programs in place.
Multi-sectoral approach is needed to ensure quality education for all
There is no doubt that the process of making education inclusive is challenging in Sub-Saharan Africa, as it is in other parts of the world. Multi-sectoral and multi-professional collaboration is key. To support the learning of students with disabilities, it is important to take advantage of existing support systems close to schools and communities. How can the health professionals, social sector, disabled persons’ organizations help in the identification of students with disabilities in such a way that it supports building an inclusive society for all? The results of this research suggest that one simple tool - screening of students - remains very rare in schools.
A question asked to teachers in both grade 2 and grade 6 about whether students have benefitted from a medical check-up, a hearing test, and an eye test in the school, may help illustrate the challenges. Only slightly more than a fourth of teachers mention the existence of medical check-ups in both grades. For hearing and eye tests, the proportions are at less than five percent on average across countries. The lack of such tests does not allow schools to use referral services for hearing aids or glasses for students.
In essence, children with disabilities are being left behind by efforts to improve education opportunities for all children in Sub-Saharan Africa. Investing in the education of these children is essential from a rights perspective, but it is also as a smart investment. Indeed, apart from a wide range of other benefits from educational attainment, the labor market returns to education for individuals with disabilities are large and similar order to the returns observed for other individuals.
Ensuring that children with disabilities in Sub-Saharan Africa have opportunities to go to school and learn while in school should be a top priority to end the persistent crisis of so many of these children remaining out-of-school or dropping out prematurely, and not learning enough while in school, with often dramatic consequences for their prospects later in life. These findings call for urgent action of Ministries of Education and other stakeholders. Countries cannot afford to not engage in building inclusive education systems; each and every child deserves to learn.
* List of 11 countries for analysis of disability gaps in educational attainment: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, South Sudan, and Zambia.
** List of 10 countries for analysis of disability gaps in learning and assessment of policies: Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo, Niger, Senegal, and Togo.


Quentin Wodon

Lead Economist, Education Sector, World Bank

Hanna Alasuutari

Senior Education Specialist

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