My Right is Our Future

The Transformative Power of Disability-Inclusive Education

Extract from CBM – Series on Disability-Inclusive Development, published 2018.

The adoption of the UNCRPD significantly changed how disability is viewed worldwide. Instead, it promoted a human rights-based approach to disability. This paradigm shift in relation to education is often explained as the shift from seeing the ‘individual learner as the problem’ to seeing the ‘system as the problem.’ Systemic barriers that hinder the inclusion of persons with disabilities in education are financial barriers, the lack of coherent policies, the lack of awareness on rights, as well as inaccessible curricula which may prevent learners with disabilities from attending and progressing through school.

Special needs education, especially when segregated, has tended to approach education from an individual, medical model. This type of special provision views girls, boys, women, and men with disabilities as separate and in need of a fundamentally different education to everyone else. Often the special education they receive is designed to help learners with disabilities eventually ‘fit into’ mainstream schools or societies. However, because these schools and societies remain largely unchanged, the reality upon leaving segregated special education settings is often one of continued social and economic exclusion.

In addition, most low- and middle-income countries cannot afford to run parallel special and mainstream school systems. This means that only a small minority of learners with disabilities will ever gain access to special schools, and then often only by travelling long distances or living away from home. Special schools have, in the past, helped persons with disabilities access education. However, moving forward, it is clear that a segregated approach within education is not a sound foundation for achieving wider inclusion of persons with disabilities within development and society.

The social and human rights models help us to understand that girls, boys, women, and men with disabilities have a fundamental right to be included in society. That means society is responsible for addressing the attitudinal, policy, practice, environmental, and resource barriers that exclude persons with disabilities. Logically, this means that education systems – as part of society – also have an obligation to address the barriers that exclude persons with disabilities from learning effectively alongside their peers without disabilities.

Actors involved in development and education work increasingly understand that they cannot effectively support inclusive development from a social model perspective unless they also support inclusive education for persons with disabilities.