What are the challenges to providing quality higher education for persons with disabilities in low and middle income countries and what would be the effective approaches to eliminate barriers to reduce dropout and improve quality higher education?

Author: Dr. Kamal Lamichhane

In the past two decades, the world, particularly low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have made great advances in education, most notably in enrolling and keeping children in school and reducing gender inequality. Despite these successes to expand access to education, critical challenges remain towards increasing access in quality higher education for persons with disabilities.

Although education greatly increases one’s chance to participate in the labor market, when considering the case of underserved people such as those with disabilities, such common knowledge does not hold true in the minds of many, discouraging greater investment, especially in LMICs.  Their lower access and achievements in education particularly in developing world could indicate the likelihood of countries and societies depriving from the accumulation of human capital. Despite the international initiatives and commitments, education of people with disabilities might be compromised with number of reasons including the households’ financial constraints.

In the monthly CIP discussion forum for September, I had an opportunity to pose a question on the challenges and then approaches to increasing access to higher education by individuals with disabilities. In the discussion, participants from different parts of the world raised important issues to be addressed.

Almost all of the participants emphasized the need for stakeholders, people with disabilities and their organizations to engage with higher education offering institutions and administrators directly towards creating conducive environment for individuals with disabilities.

While going through some of the comments, it is important to note that although countries have started taking some steps for improving access to higher education of individuals with disabilities, as their school dropout rate is higher, access itself is low in higher education. In this context, the approaches participants have suggested including providing teaching materials in accessible format for individuals with different disability types are indeed important and necessary.

For this, policy interventions with reasonable accommodation for provisions as stated in Article 2 of the CRPD are required.

Additionally, just making tuition fees free cannot be sufficient as other costs such as uniforms and educational materials including textbooks have to be managed by families themselves. Thus, negative income shocks resulting from them are likely to discourage them from continuing to participate in college education.

Even though attention has been growing in providing quality education, it cannot succeed without identifying the difficulties individuals with disabilities and their parents face and policy development with necessary arrangements of support provisions in colleges to accommodate their individual learning needs. Together with these interventions, additional budget should be allocated towards resolving inaccessibility of infrastructures.

Also, data collection should be given greater emphasis so that evidence could be generated on issues and challenges individuals with disabilities face in higher education.

At the same time, while working in this field for long, what I realized is that our efforts are mostly centered on providing access to primary education which is indeed important step but similar level of efforts on the part of DPOs are lacking to convince Governments for increasing funding to make infrastructure accessible and providing educational materials including books in accessible or alternative format.

Scholarship opportunities in these countries for higher education are limited in part resulting from the limited budget allocation. Although barriers may differ depending on the type and severity of the disability, household financial constraint and transportation difficulties could negatively impact all individuals with disabilities. Such effects could be particularly larger to those with significant disabilities. In many cases, individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing are left out due to insufficient funding to covers the cost for educational materials in accessible format, support staffs, sign language facilities and more. As we are in the middle of implementing sustainable development Goals, sufficient budget allocation is necessary on the part of Governments through which educational materials could be developed and support staffs could be hired. By doing so, people with disabilities could enjoy the multifaceted benefits which contribute for their social inclusion and economic empowerment.

Again, the important point to mention is that quality should not be compromised and access should not be denied for their higher education. Only then countries could enjoy the sense of inclusive growth and development.