We must include students with disabilities in education transformation

Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame, September 2022

The upcoming UN Transforming Education Summit is a key opportunity for leaders to ensure that students with disabilities are not left behind in education plans.

There used to be many days when Saio, who is from Sierra Leone, would find herself unable to walk the long distance to her school. As a result, she would take days off and miss classes. When in school, she would often face bullying from other students and exclusion by teachers.

But since Sightsavers introduced inclusive interventions and training to reduce disability stigma in the school, her experience has radically changed. Teachers are more sensitive to her needs, the building is more accessible, and she gets taken to school on a motorbike. Saio has said that now, “I feel good whenever I go to school”.

Globally, there are nearly 240 million children like Saio with disabilities, but many are not getting the help she received. Despite progress in some areas of education, children with disabilities are 2.5 times less likely to go to school than other children. This means missing out on life-changing education and potentially becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty and dependence.

Sadly, the gap between children with and without disabilities is growing. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, children with disabilities were less likely to be learning even if they were in school. Their rate of progression was much lower, and they were less likely to achieve minimum proficiency in reading compared to their peers.

Since the start of the pandemic, school closures have led to a greater learning crisis, creating increased exclusion, marginalisation and poverty for children with disabilities and a growing digital divide. Many countries relied on technology to mitigate learning loss, but at least 31% of children were unable to benefit from this due to inaccessible tools or limited access to internet and technology. The International Disability Alliance has also estimated that around 17% of children with disabilities dropped out of education during the pandemic – a loss that will be felt for years to come.

None of this is inevitable – we have the power to create transformational change. We must therefore seize the opportunity of the upcoming UN Transforming Education Summit from September 16-19 to raise our voices for children with disabilities.

A man sits on a stationary motorbike with Saio on the backseat. They are both wearing helmets and surgical masks.
Saio was able to attend school more often when Sightsavers provided her with transport.
© Sightsavers/Michael Duff

What are we calling for at the Transforming Education Summit?

At the summit, more than 150 heads of state will come together in New York to set out their plans for education transformation. They will consider five themes: inclusive, equitable, safe and healthy schools; learning and skills for life, work and sustainable development; teachers, teaching and the teaching profession; digital learning and transformation; and financing education.

Sightsavers and partners are calling on these global leaders to put the principles of inclusion and equity at the heart of their discussion, and to include children with disabilities in all national and global education policies and plans. It is crucial that all discussions uphold their right, enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), to quality, inclusive education.

Education policies should be backed up by evidence. Gaps in data collection and disaggregating data by disability, gender and other factors must urgently be addressed. Only this will ensure that the most marginalised learners are not invisible to policymakers.

Teachers and school staff need to be encouraged as they learn how to best support their pupils with disabilities. They need to be trained in low and no-tech options and alternatives to digital learning to mitigate the impact of another potential crisis like the pandemic.

The summit is an opportune time to hear directly from people with disabilities and their families, representative networks and teachers. We should listen to young people and students with disabilities, to really understand how they are engaged, or disengaged, with education. By involving people who are experts by experience, we can help ensure policies will be impactful and sustainable.

All of us within the UN system have a duty to ensure that our work is inclusive and accessible to all. The UN’s Disability Inclusion Strategy (UNDIS) outlines the need to embed the rights of people with disabilities across all the work of the UN system. For the summit, this means making sure that any activities (online and in person) are accessible. This can be done by incorporating accessibility features such as sign language interpretation, captioning, and remote participation options.

“None of this is inevitable: we have the power to create transformational change.”

It’s time to reimagine education for every student

Inclusive education is very close to my heart. I began losing my vision as a young girl in Ghana at age 10 and needed glasses to read in class. By 14, I was no longer able to read much even with my glasses. Some teachers supported me by reading out what was written on the blackboard, but at the time, Ghana had no policies to cater to students with low vision. Without specialised support and alternative learning methods like braille books, I struggled.

We have the tools and expertise to helps students with disabilities thrive in school environments. When I was 17, I learned to type and use braille and audio books. I was introduced to audio cassettes and met other blind students. Thanks to this, I acquired the skills I needed to go to college and enter the world of work. Without my education, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

The CRPD states a commitment to “an inclusive education system at all levels”. We need transformational, not incremental, change in order to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, inclusive and equitable quality education for all. The Transforming Education Summit is an opportunity to make this change and reimagine a better future for every child and student.

Sightsavers is calling on global leaders to take urgent action at the summit through our #DoYourHomework campaign. Find out how you can get involved by using our social media toolkit.

This article was previously published by newSpecial.

“The summit is an opportunity to make
a better future for every child and student.”


Gertrude Oforiwa Fefoame is Sightsavers’ global advocacy manager and is based in Ghana.


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