How can we best support the education of children with disabilities in low and middle income countries?

Author: Nidhi Singal

Education of children with disabilities General Comment No. 4 on Article 24 issued in 2016 by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defined inclusion as, “a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences” (Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2016, p. 4). While there is a lot of debate on what is inclusive education, in this forum individuals from different countries, drew on their experiences, to reflect on how best to support the education of children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms. Across the different contributions, there were there were four overarching themes, which are discussed here.

Focus on teachers was paramount. Several contributors noted how teachers lacked adequate training and support, especially to manage children with diverse needs in large classes and with inadequate resources. Dipti Bhatia provided several testimonies from children with disabilities and teachers in relation to the many challenges faced in making inclusive education a reality. These are important testimonials highlighting the long road to inclusion, but also provide powerful reminder of why an inclusive vision is important.

The emphasis on training teachers was central to many contributions.   Emma McKinney, based on her personal experiences as a teacher, cautioned against inclusive education training being a mere ‘add on’, rather stressed on the need to embed inclusive pedagogy across training programmes.  Raghuraman argued that teacher training needs to have a “humane factor” where training is also about motivating teachers and not merely a certification process.  The central principle, resonating across these contributions was the need to empower teachers. Krishna Gahatraj emphasized the need to invest in empowering teachers and Andrew Lange talked about fostering teacher responsibility- both these contributors were making a strong case that teachers need to recognise that learning and wellbeing of all students is of central concern.

Powerful role of families in the education of children with disabilities. Federica made a strong case for recognising the need for meaningful engagement with families of children with disabilities. She rightly argued that families play a central role in influencing communities and schools, supporting innovative approaches to inclusion and family led OPDs are powerful in harnessing the voices and experiences at the local level. Acknowledging the substantial impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, she shared an insightful report published by Inclusion International: “A Global Agenda for Inclusive Recovery: Ensuring People with Intellectual Disabilities and Families are Included in a Post-COVID World” which draws on experiences and the advocacy of its members from around the world. The role of parents and a focus on what a child can do, is something that was also emphasized by Julia Hayes.

Inclusive planning needs to be incorporated in all stages, and not just a tag on, is indeed vital when thinking about systemic reform efforts. Natasha Graham mentioned UNICEF’s New guidelines to improve inclusiveness and effectiveness in global education which are designed to strengthen national capacities to illuminate what is working – and not working – in education systems. The key takeaway is that inclusion needs to start at the planning process of reform efforts.  Basirat Razaq-Shuaib provided a very powerful reminder of how thinking (and actions!) around inclusive education cannot be “detached from the overall state of education”. She not only provided an important reminder for developing approaches in a contextually sensitive manner but using her experience of working in Nigeria urges us to ask deeper questions about curriculum, class sizes, teaching and learning materials- all of which are important to reflect upon within the broader educational landscape, and not restricted to debates on ‘inclusive education’. Inclusive education is about the whole education system and cannot work in a silo of educational reform efforts.

Develop evidence within the global South. Dan Mont remarked that he is often asked how classrooms can be made more inclusive in countries of the Global South, when all the examples are from high income countries. The lack of evidence on the how of inclusive education in low- and middle-income countries has been noted in number of research reviews and reports. Seema Nath, based on her experience of working in the field, highlighted the need for contextually relevant evidence. This is important in also fostering strong South-South collaborations, which are vital in making inclusive education a reality. The pertinent need for robust evidence to support effective policy making is also highlighted in a recently published  review report on “Primary Schooling for Children with Disabilities: A Review of African Scholarship”. This review report noted not only the significant lack of research in this area but also how the studies published in the region acknowledge the continued confusion and lack of clarity around inclusive education, which is further complicated by disconnected policy ambitions and the practical realities of implementation. Various Sub-Saharan based researchers, who are featured in this review, argue for designing holistic, inclusive education projects that go beyond enrolment and sensitization activities. They also stress on the need to rethink models of teacher training so that they exceed the one-off workshop approach. Centrally, they underscore the important of inclusive education to be shaped by local and contextual realities.