How do we ensure that education systems and programmes are inclusive of all children, including children with disabilities? The GCE Café on November 2,, 2021, brought together members of both the GCE-NL network and the Dutch Coalition on Disability and Development (DCDD) to have an exchange on this topic. During the event, DCDD’s new Quick Guide was launched: Towards Disability Inclusive Education. The guide gives a concise overview of practical tools, knowledge and resources, which help to put inclusion into practice. Because as long as disability inclusion is not being taken into account, SDG 4 on ‘inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all’ will not be accomplished.
How to use the Quick Guide
At the start of the event, Paulien Bruijn, who guided the process of developing the inclusive education guide, gave a quick overview of how the guide can be used. It starts with a brief introduction on what disability inclusive education actually means. Then it gives an overview of the different steps to take in specific areas, such as teacher training or school accessibility, and provides a selection of practical tools and resources for implementation. As such, the guide helps programme managers, proposal developers and field coordinators involved in the development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of primary education programmes to identify the steps they can take towards inclusion.
Changing attitudes and environments
Nafisa Baboo, who is a Senior Inclusive Education Advisor for Light for the World and Board member at GCE International, gave her reflection on the current status of disability inclusive education. Nafisa is a strong global advocate for the inclusion of children with disabilities in education, while also having practical experience as a qualified speech-language therapist and audiologist. During her speech she warned against the excessive use of words such as ‘inclusive’ and ‘inclusion’. These terms are often based on stigmas and stereotypes that prevent people from seeing other’s true potential. Letting loose of certain words and terms enables us to look further. “We want everybody to feel valued, accepted, and see the unique abilities of everybody, not the inabilities. Nobody wants to be seen by what they can’t do. We want to see people for who they really are at the soul level, equally precious,” Nafisa states.
A child with disabilities is 2.5 times more likely not to be in school, and 1 in 10 children with disabilities do not attend an inclusive school. Often, they are excluded because of stigmas whereby their inherent value is not being seen. In order to tackle these prejudices, the UN developed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). The convention reinforces the rights of persons with disabilities, but sadly a lot still needs to be done to make this a reality. Much has to do with breaking down stereotypes and creating more acceptance, access and participation of all learners. Inclusive education is the key to that. “The needs of children with disabilities aren’t that far from what every other child needs”,Nafisa says. It means that schools should enable a supportive environment in which all children can learn regardless of their abilities. This can be achieved by creating systemic change towards a child-centred approach.
Using tools, such as the quick guide on inclusive education, helps us to move forward. Besides that, it is important to look at boosting investment in disability inclusive education and also collaboration between the disability movement and mainstream education movements. More and more countries and stakeholders are interested in inclusive education, but it is important to move towards real commitment: “…Kenneth Blanchard said that when you are interested in doing something, you do it only because it is convenient. But when you are committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results. Let’s make inclusive education a reality for all children around the world”, Nafisa concludes at the end of her talk.
Practical steps towards inclusion
Some attendees to the webinar expressed that they are eager to become more inclusive but that they were not sure where to start. Nafisa stated that it is important to be open and eager to learn. If the knowledge and expertise is not available within the organisation, it is good to invite and link up with organisations like the members of DCDD who have experience with disability inclusive education. Full inclusion across all programmes at the same time is difficult, but the most important thing is to make a start, for example in one country, and to learn and build from there.
Also, the topic of inclusion in relation to the current COVID-19 pandemic was invoked. When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic the lesson that can be learned is the importance and potential of technology that is a real game changer in the education and development field. Through improved technology a lot of improvements can be made, such as better and accessible tools and textbooks for example. Therefore it is important that governments recognize the importance of disability inclusion, so that they will invest more in inclusive education as well as in digital accessibility.
Another question that was raised was how to manage a classroom with children with as well as without disabilities. It is a common assumption for teachers and other stakeholders to think that students should learn separately because it would be too difficult to manage all the different needs. Nafisa Baboo: “Often, people forget that children can also learn from each other. When you have a class with 50-60 children and it’s a mixed group, you have more teachers essentially.” Paulien Bruijn elaborated further on this with a specific example.“I visited an inclusive programme in Bangladesh and talked to the teachers who had huge classes with 50-60 children. I asked them how they felt about being in this programme and learning how to include children with disabilities. They honestly said, “Before we started and had the training, we thought it was really impossible. Now we’re trained and we’re really happy with having children with disabilities in the class because the other children are helping the children with disabilities.” They had a much better atmosphere in the class.”A powerful example of how disability inclusion can lead towards better and inclusive education.
At the end of the webinar there was a panel discussion with several panellists who all contributed to the quick guide. Annemieke van Wesemael from the Liliane Foundation highlighted the ‘Welcome to School Kit’, which is a tool that helps children to assess the physical accessibility of their own school. In this way, a school can promote the participation of all and create mutual understanding. Ilse van der Put talked about the importance of the outdoor learning environment, such as inclusive playgrounds: “We have to design playgrounds to support all children to play together, so that they can become friends and decide freely what they want to play and learn.”Fred Marinus from Kentalis International talked about specific tools and methods for inclusion of children who are deaf or hard of hearing, such as the establishment of ‘sign language clubs’ where all students can learn signs, or making linkages between mainstream schools and resource centres who have expertise on deafness. Finally, Praveen Kumar from VSO International emphasized the need to create an enabling system for inclusive education, through advocacy and improved data collection.
GCE-NL and DCDD are thankful for the contributions of all the organisations involved in this fruitful exchange, and we are hopeful that this leads to a stronger joint effort to make inclusive education a reality for all. If you wish to receive more information on how to make education more disability inclusive please contact DCDD at: firstname.lastname@example.org.