Making quality education accessible to children with disabilities


  • An estimated 1/3rd of the 58 million children who remain out of primary school have a disability.
  • The SDGs call for access to quality education for all children by 2030, which requires strong action on inclusion of disadvantaged children, including those with disabilities.
  • World Bank Group support on this front ranges from building accessible classrooms in Togo to large-scale mainstream inclusion through India’s massive Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program.

December 3, 2015–While the developing world has made strong progress towards universal primary education, the Sustainable Development Goals adopted at the United Nations this September now call for access to quality education for all children by 2030, and opportunities for lifelong learning.

Education is still largely an unfulfilled dream for 250 million children who have been to school but cannot read or write. As the world begins to tackle this massive learning crisis, getting children with disabilities and other disadvantages into school and learning requires focused and simultaneous action.

According to the International Labor Organization, between 785 and 975 million persons with disabilities are estimated to be of working age, but most do not work. While there are many examples of their individual success, as a group they often face disproportionate poverty and unemployment.

Large numbers of vulnerable children continue to be at serious risk of future losses due to disability. In a July 2015 paper,Towards a Disability Inclusive Education, a team of global experts notes that of the 58 million out-of-school children at the primary level alone, an estimated one-third have a disability.

The paper also notes that data on learning outcomes among children with disabilities is very limited, and there are widespread misperceptions about the cost of educating these children. Yet the returns to education for children with disability are strikingly high—19% to 26% as estimated by a study in Nepal.

Developing countries across the world are starting to make progress in the right direction. The World Bank Group has supported inclusive education for children with disabilities across a wide range of countries, including Bulgaria, India, Togo, and Vietnam, to name just a few.

Starting early in Bulgaria

In Bulgaria, many vulnerable children, including from the Roma community, reach school age without the basic head start that others routinely receive. Through the Bulgaria Social Inclusion Project, children from marginalized backgrounds and those with disabilities have been receiving more inclusive opportunities at an early age.

The project has helped these children enroll in kindergarten and receive the integrated social, health, and childcare services that is so critical to their future. Over 1,700 children with disabilities have benefited from early intervention services, and over 360 of them have been enrolled in mainstream kindergarten and preschool groups.

Inclusion of people with disabilities is clearly recognized as a rights-based issue in Bulgaria, and in fact in many other countries. Over 150 countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, now giving it the force of national law within their borders.

In addition to this dimension, disability is also an economic issue at the national level. An exploratory ILO study in 2010 estimated that among the 10 low and middle-income countries included, macroeconomic losses related to disabilities range from 3% (Malawi) of 2006 GDP to 7% (South Africa).

Teaching sign language in Vietnam

Another example of starting early for long-term gain is the Intergenerational Deaf Education Outreach program in Vietnam, which operates in Hanoi, Thai Nguyen, Quang Binh and Ho Chi Minh City.

This pilot program supported by the Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF) has brought families, institutions, and service providers together in an integrated effort to teach deaf children sign language at a very young age, helping them to get ready to learn when they enter formal primary school.

Through the pilot, 260 deaf children have been served by family support teams, with dramatic progress in cognitive and language development. Over 100 deaf family mentors and sign language interpreters have been certified by the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training, and twice that number of hearing teachers have learnt sign language and ways to support deaf children in school.

As a recent video shows, holistic support to these children has been transformative. The film tells the story of Linh and Tu, a sister and brother who have been deaf since birth but can now communicate with their family in sign language as a result of home visits by a trained teacher.

The challenge in the final year of the pilot is to prepare for the potential adoption and replication of this model across Vietnam. Key priorities are to digitize education resources, mobilize local funds, share the advantages of the model, and take steps to ensure that quality of services remains a high priority.

Testing innovative methods in Malawi

Another JSDF-financed effort is the Malawi Inclusive Education for Disabled Children project, which is testing innovative methods to raise enrollment among children with disabilities who are not in mainstream schools, and also supports the development of an inclusive education policy.

Activities have ranged from sensitization and community mobilization campaigns in 150 schools, bringing together all stakeholders, developing various sets of guidelines including for disability screening, training 630 teachers on inclusive education and providing hands-on support in 30 schools.

A module has been developed to collect information on disabled children and monitor their regular activities. The Ministry of Education will incorporate this module in its Education Management Information System (EMIS).   Ministry staff have also been trained on inclusive policies and practices.

Building accessible classrooms in Togo

Togo, a small country on the coast of West Africa, has recently taken action to support children with disabilities through the Togo Education and Institutional Strengthening Project. Paying attention to the needs of every child in terms of accessible school infrastructure has been an important step forward.

Funded by a grant from the Global Partnership for Education, the project covered the building of nearly 1,000 classrooms accessible by children with disabilities. These classrooms now serve over 42,000 children, including those with disabilities, expanding the reach and inclusiveness of basic education.

Tackling disabilities at scale in India

With the passing of the Right to Education Act in 2009, India’s nationwide Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan program has sought to bring all children into elementary school, including those with disabilities. The scale of the program is enormous, serving 200 million children—a group that is larger than the entire population of Nigeria, the world’s seventh-largest country.

One of the results indicators within this World Bank-supported national program is the enrollment of children identified as having special needs into primary and upper primary school. The share of children with special needs enrolled at this level has risen from 84% in 2012-13 to nearly 90% today. This is a total of 2.5 million children.

In addition, over 116,000 children with special needs receive home-based education, taking the total coverage of identified children to 96% or nearly 2.7 million under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Ongoing challenges include identifying and serving the remaining children with special needs in India, and raising the quality of education for them.

Indian states are innovating within this program to try to offer greater support to disadvantaged children. In Bihar state’s Jehanabad district, Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBVs)—residential school facilities that have been set up across the country for girls from underprivileged communities—are now trying to accommodate girls with visual impairment and help them catch up on lost learning.

A video shot in Jehanabad opens with Reebha Kumari, a girl with a visual impairment, learning martial arts in the KGBV courtyard alongside girls who have sight. After intensive support from teachers who helped her acquire the skills she needed to attend school and learn, Reebha now attends the mainstream Government Upper Primary School next door. She studies in Grade 6.

Another visually impaired student, Gudiya Kumari, who is in Grade 7, describes her own early fears about going to school and what kind of teachers she would have to face. She recalls how the other girls would at first crowd around the girls who couldn’t see, curious about how they would manage. “Gradually, they realized that we are indeed capable of studying,” she says.

Inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream education has the power to change these children’s destinies,” saidClaudia Costin, World Bank Senior Director for Education. “It is the right of each and every child to have access to quality education, and while efforts to increase learning in schools are critical, they should not come at the cost of excluding children with disa