Emma Evans, Queens University.
With seventeen Sustainable Development Goals and only ten years left on the clock, the international community can look forward to a busy decade. In order to meet their lofty commitments, world leaders must address the inequalities experienced by marginalized people, including people with disabilities. The success of all seventeen Goals depends on the ability of this diverse group to participate in society, starting with a quality education- conveniently another Sustainable Development Goal.
Education has a significant impact on the inclusion and self-actualization of people with disabilities. Somewhat unsurprisingly for those of us who have struggled through the tedious IEP (Individualized Education Program) process, Canada is far from a “champion” of inclusive education. Canada’s shortcomings in the education system is particularly apparent in Northern Indigenous communities, where there is a lack of so-called “special education” or integrated classrooms. As Chief Commissioner of Canadian Human Rights Commission, Marie-Claude Landry, notes: “[t]he support is simply not there. We can and must do better for this and future generations of Canadians with disabilities, both in remote communities and in our cities too.” Landry describes how far too many school-age children miss out on learning because of accessibility issues. Thus, the Canadian approach to the Sustainable Development Goals is one that must be “particularly applicable to those groups who are marginalized or otherwise vulnerable, which includes… people with disabilities.” Attempts at inclusion are evident in the Accessible Canada Act, legislation designed to identify and remove access barriers, and the Opportunities Fund, which is open to people with disabilities facing financial difficulty. However, there remains a lack of attention towards the quality of education received by students with disabilities.
As in Canada, people with disabilities remain absent from classrooms around the world. Several countries who committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development do not allow students with disabilities to enter the education system due to their “special needs.” For example, a 2019 study published by Disability in the Global South concluded that up to fifty-percent of Indian children with disabilities are unable to attend school. Even worse, the study acknowledges the possibility of under-reporting in a country where stigma and a narrow definition of the term “disability” means that several affected children may be unaccounted for. The authors suggest that this exclusion of children with disabilities is caused by a lack of understanding about disability and how to support differently-abled students. Furthermore, the supports that exist in some Canadian classrooms may not be viable in less economically developed countries. Globally, “[a]n estimated one-third of the 58 million children who remain out of primary school have a disability.” The lack of resources available to children with disabilities make their absence from class all the more likely. As another paper notes, education is the key to upward mobility, however, “limited resources often dictate that only children who are healthy, mobile and ready to learn are able to attend school.” This dual reality of poverty and stigma means that the international community has a lot of work to do to ensure quality education and reduced inequalities for people with disabilities.
A recent report by The World Bank demonstrates the innovative ways in which countries are tackling this challenging mandate. In Bulgaria, the Social Inclusion project enables over 350 children with disabilities to participate in mainstream preschool and kindergarten programs. Another 1,700 children have received critical early interventions, helping to ease their transition into the school system. In Togo, one thousand accessible classrooms have been built through a project by the Global Partnership for Education. Finally, Vietnam’s Intergenerational Deaf Outreach Program provides in-home sign language training. This training ensures that families can communicate with one another and that children can attend school alongside their friends. These examples encapsulate the efforts by NGOs, activists and world leaders to change outcomes for people with disabilities through education. Not only does education decrease stigma, it enables children with disabilities to more readily participate in the workforce later in life. As the World Bank concludes, inclusion of people with disabilities could boost a country’s GDP by upwards of 7%. The economic, social and political impacts of an equitable education system are innumerable. It is time we all get schooled.
Canadian Human Rights Commission. For persons with disabilities in Canada, education is not always an open door: CHRC report. 9 March 2017. 21 January 2020.
Government of Canada. Canada’s Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Voluntary National Review. PDF. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2018.
Grills, Nathan, et al. “‘Inclusive education’ in India largely exclusive of children with a disability.” Disability and the Global South (2019): 1756-1771.
Scharf, Rebecca J., et al. “Global Disability: Empowering Children of all Abilities.” Pediatric Clinics of North America (2017): 769-784.
The World Bank. Making quality education accessible to children with disabilities. 3 December 2015. 21 January 2020.