Including children with disabilities in education: Inertia or tipping point?

This post was first published on Global Partnership for Education's Education for All blog. The author, Diane Richler, is Chairperson of Catalyst for Inclusive Education. 

December 3, 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the proclamation of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities by the United Nations General Assembly. It is a day to reflect on the still too prevalent exclusion of children with disabilities from education and to ask tough questions:  Have the international commitments to quality and inclusive education signaled a tipping point towards major change? Or will the status quo of segregation and exclusion prevail for children with disabilities?

The Facts

Positive Momentum Toward Inclusion

  • The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), ratified by 175 countries, calls for "an inclusive system at all levels".
  • CRPD General Comment 4 makes important distinctions between exclusion, segregation, integration and inclusion.  It underlines that systems that commit to including students with disabilities can improve education for all students.
  • Sustainable Goal 4 requires that all governments "ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning".

Pull of Inertia

  • Many of the current accountability measures used to assess quality incentivize exclusion and segregation since teachers or schools may be penalized for having students who perform poorly on tests 
  • A focus on disability type rather than learning style leads to continued exclusion, investment in segregation and integration and a corresponding failure to invest in inclusion.

People with Intellectual Disabilities and their Families Align with GEMR

Inclusion International has undertaken Catalyst for Inclusive Education to assist our members in over 115 countries to advance inclusive education. Findings from the first year of Catalyst are consistent with the recent Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR) 2017-18. Below is a side by side comparison from the two:

Comparison Chart.png

The GEM report concludes that a focus on accountability only can hamper progress towards inclusion, and that ignoring equity helps to maintain inertia in existing systems.  Standardized testing: 

  • Caters to the majority and overlooks children out of school and children with disabilities; 
  • Assumes all children hit the same benchmarks and disregards different learning styles;
  • Fails to account for social protection measures that are not measurable in tests; and, 
  • Assumes a link between high test scores and success after school.

According to the GEMR, "accountability needs to emphasize building more inclusive, equitable, good-quality education systems and practices."

Quality and Inclusion Going Forward

The UNESCO Guide for Ensuring Inclusion and Equity in Education (2017) offers some guidance on how to move from inertia to a tipping point towards inclusion. It advocates that achieving quality and inclusion requires:

  • Recognizing that inclusion and equity are overarching principles that guide all educational policies, plans and practices;
  • Designing the national curriculum and its associated assessment systems to respond effectively to all learners;
  • Understanding and supporting national policy goals to promote inclusion and equity in education by all partners who work with learners and their families; and, 
  • Creating systems to monitor the presence, participation and achievement of all learners.

Some simple steps can help governments shift the balance from current inertia to a secure tipping point in favor of inclusion. The key first steps are to:

  • Stop building special schools;
  • Move resources currently invested in special schools and classes to support inclusion; and,
  • Modify pre-service and in-service training to prepare teachers to teach all students.

How Can the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) Help?

The recent World Development Report 2018 (WDR) issued by the World Bank focuses on learning outcomes and learning metrics, and pays little attention to issues of inclusion or the most disadvantaged learners. Despite a lack of emphasis on equity, it offers an unusual glimmer of hope by signalling the value of investing in education, and acknowledging the right to education. The report skimmed many vital issues in order to cover a theme as broad as education, but left the door open for an investment in examining the links between equity and quality.

The GPE can help to shift the balance in favor of inclusion. The upcoming Financing Conference offers an ideal opportunity. SDG 4, which has been adopted as the GPE vision, inextricably links quality and inclusion. Supporting fully inclusive education systems, which are inclusive of students with disabilities, should be a cross-cutting focus. It is time for GPE to work with its partners, including national governments, donors, civil society, private sector and foundations, to develop an action plan to match the vision.  

When that happens, December 3 will be a great moment for celebration.

CRPD Committee - General Comment No. 4 (2016) on the Right to Inclusive Education (article 24)

This summary overview of General Comment No.4 was written by Paula Hunt, Senior Technical Advisor, Catalyst for Inclusive Education.

Inclusive education is central to achieving high-quality education for all learners, must be realized at all levels (preschool, primary, secondary and tertiary education, vocational training and lifelong learning, extracurricular and social activities), for all students, including persons with disabilities, without discrimination and on an equal basis with others. 

Inclusive education entails a transformation in culture, policy and practice, a commitment to removing barriers, and strengthening the capacity of the education system to reach out to all learners. It focuses on the full and effective participation, accessibility, attendance and achievement of all students without discrimination. It is a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies. States parties must commit sufficient financial and human resources.

Core features of inclusive education are: 

1.A “whole systems” approach: all resources are invested in advancing inclusive education;

2. A “whole educational environment” embedding the culture, policies and practices; 

3. A “whole person” approach: recognition is given to the capacity of every person to learn, and high expectations are established for all learners. Inclusive education offers flexible curricula and teaching and learning methods adapted to different strengths, requirements and learning styles. The focus is on learners’ capacities and aspirations, rather than on content when planning teaching activities;

4. Supported teachers: all teachers and other staff receive the education and training they need to give them the core values and competencies to accommodate inclusive learning environments; 

5. Respect for and value of diversity: all members of the learning community are equally welcome and must be shown respect for diversity;

6. A learning-friendly environment: inclusive learning environments are accessible environments where everyone feels safe, supported, stimulated and able to express;

7. Effective transitions: learners with disabilities receive support to ensure the effective transition from learning at school to vocational and tertiary education and, finally, to work (life-long focus);

8. Recognition of partnerships: The relationship between the learning environment and the wider community must be recognized as a route towards inclusive societies; 

9. Monitoring: involve persons with disabilities.

The right to inclusive education is assured without discrimination and on the basis of equality of opportunity. Discrimination includes the right not to be segregated, and must be understood in the context of the duty to provide accessible learning environments and reasonable accommodation. Accessibility benefits groups of the population and is based on a set of standards that are implemented gradually. Reasonable accommodation relates to an individual and is complementary to the accessibility duty. Modes and means of teaching should be accessible and teaching should be conducted in accessible environments.

The exclusion of persons with disabilities from the general education system should be prohibited, including through any legislative or regulatory provisions that limit their inclusion on the basis of their impairment or the degree of that impairment. It must support the creation of opportunities to build on the unique strengths and talents of each individual with a disability. 

The education system must comprise four interrelated features: availability, accessibility, acceptability and adaptability. Compulsory, quality, free and accessible primary education is an immediate obligation. States parties have a specific and continuing obligation to move as expeditiously and effectively as possible towards the full realization of article 24. This is not compatible with sustaining two systems of education.

Must consider the child’s own views and individual identity, the preservation of the family, care, protection and safety of the child, any particular vulnerability, and the child’s right to health and education. Provide habilitation and rehabilitation services within the education system, at the earliest stage possible, be based on a multidisciplinary assessment of a student’s strengths and support maximum independence, autonomy, respect of dignity, full physical, mental, social and vocational ability and inclusion and participation in all aspects of life.

A downloadable handout of this General Comment Overview can be found in Resources.

Welcome to the Catalyst for Inclusive Education Website

Written by Diane Richler, Chair, Catalyst for Inclusive Education.

Education has always been a top priority for members of Inclusion International. Most of our member organizations, in all parts of the world, were formed by parents because their children were not allowed to go to school with their non-disabled brothers and sisters. Parents knew that their sons and daughters could learn, and so in many places they started the first schools for children with intellectual disabilities.

As the self-advocacy movement grew and adults who had gone to special schools started to speak out, they described the hurt they felt not being part of the regular education system, and how going to separate schools or being in separate classes was a path to a life of segregation. Families and progressive educators recognized that “special education” did not mean good education, and that in fact, the same conditions that would allow students who had intellectual disabilities to thrive in regular classes would also improve education for all.

Over the past two decades, the world community has increasingly recognized that peace and prosperity are the result of closing the gaps between those who are most marginalized and the rest of society. That is why the global program for sustainable development and poverty reduction focuses on leaving no one behind, and has as one of its goals achieving “quality and inclusive education”.

Inclusion International was an active participant in the negotiation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and played a particularly active role in securing the wording of Article 24, which guarantees the right to inclusive education. Inclusion International also played an important role in collaborating with the CRPD Committee responsible for interpreting the Convention to ensure that its General Comment 4 defined inclusive education the way it is understood by Inclusion International.

But as our members know only too well, there is a vast chasm between law and people’s lives. Having the framework of the CRPD and General Comment 4 is important. Now we need to turn rights into reality.

That’s where the Catalyst for Inclusive Education comes in. In chemistry, a catalyst brings about a change in its environment. And that is exactly what the Catalyst intends to do. We are working with our members who want to advance inclusive education in their countries, and bringing support to them to spur on change. Some of that outside support is coming from other members of Inclusion International. Some is coming from individual experts, from educators, lawyers, other human rights organizations, or donors.

Transforming education systems to provide both quality and inclusion is a mammoth task. Inclusion International has the members, the networks, the vision, and the commitment to take it on.

Be part of the action! Catalyst is frequently developing new global resources on inclusive education and country-level initiatives. Check back often for updates as we work to advance inclusive education at the national, regional, and global levels.