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Education and

Inclusion and Disability

Key message

All means all. Education is for everyone.

Children and young people with disabilities have high expectations for themselves; they want to go to school, finish their education, and contribute to society. An inclusive quality education can help children reach their full potential and become active members in their communities. When children with disabilities are included in mainstream education, they learn at higher levels than when separated from their peers of similar ages and abilities. When education includes children with disabilities, it creates a more diverse experience for all learners and deepens a young person’s appreciation of differences, reduces discrimination, and improves cooperation. Schools and teachers that embrace inclusive education can be a catalyst for school-wide transformation towards quality education for all.
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Key challenges
  • Approximately one billion people are living with a disability — the largest minority group in the world. At least one in ten people with a disability — 240 million — are children.
    (UNICEF, 2021)  (GBC-Education, 2022)
  • Disability is the most significant barrier to quality education, outweighing all other individual and household characteristics. Compared to children without disabilities, children with disabilities were 49% more likely to have never attended school.
    (UNCIEF, 2021)
  • Even when in school, students with disabilities are at greater risk of not learning. Children with disabilities are 42% less likely to have foundational reading and numeracy skills in comparison to children without disabilities.
    (UNICEF, 2021)
  • Changing laws and policies to support inclusive education is not enough, it is essential to invest more resources into both mainstreaming and need-specific support. In Fiji, lack of resources to provide a good inclusive education meant that the needs of students with intellectual disabilities were better addressed in special education settings.
    (GEM, 2020)
  • Exclusion of children with disabilities has high economic costs. In Bangladesh, the lack of schooling and employment for learners with disabilities and their caregivers costs an estimated US$1.2 billion annually, or 1.74% of GDP.
    (International Disability and Development Consortium, 2016)  (World Bank, 2008)
  • Students with disabilities are disproportionately excluded from education during times of emergencies. Just 33% of low-income countries were able to provide needed support like sign language interpretation, closed captioning, or braille through their remote learning initiatives during COVID-19. Only 19% of teachers believed their students with disabilities were able to learn while schools were closed.
    (UNESCO et. al., 2020)  (World Bank, 2021)
  • When schools are closed, students with disabilities face increased health challenges. The number of university students with disabilities who reported major depressive disorders was double that of students without disabilities in the U.S. Children with disabilities are around ten times more likely to report a serious illness as they experience higher levels of malnutrition and higher levels of mortality. Many health interventions are offered to children in school such as vaccinations and food programmes.
    (Sutton, 2020)  (PLAN, 2022)
  • Many children with disabilities lack access to learning materials. Of the 240 million children globally who have disabilities, the majority lack access to vital educational support such as accessible learning materials and inclusive technologies.
    (World Economic Forum, 2024)
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Make the case
  • With proper support, students with disabilities can learn just as well as any other student. More than 80% of students with special needs meet the same academic standards as other students, as long as schools give them the access, accommodations, instruction and support they need.
    (Thurlow et al., 2011)
  • Students with disabilities have high expectations for themselves but must overcome an enormous ‘belief gap’ by adults. 85% of students with disabilities in the US expect to graduate with a high school diploma.
    (National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014)
  • Inclusive education is the most effective method for children with disabilities. When students with disabilities can learn in inclusive classrooms, they have higher maths and reading scores, less disruptive behaviour, and increased future employment opportunities.
    (Hayes & Bulat, 2017)  (Hehir et al., 2016)  (Myklebust, 2007)
  • Inclusion makes a difference for students with special needs. In Norway, students with disabilities in inclusive education are 75% more likely to earn a vocational or academic credential compared with students in special classes.
    (Hehir et al., 2016)
  • Students without disabilities also learn better in an integrated classroom. A meta review of 26 studies in the US, Australia, Canada, and Ireland found that 81% of the findings reported positive or neutral academic effects on non-disabled students when they can learn with peers with disabilities.
    (Hayes & Bulat, 2017)
  • Inclusive education is also the most financially efficient way to educate students with disabilities. Segregated education systems can cost seven to nine times more than inclusive education.
    (Hayes & Bulat, 2017)  (Labon, 1999)
  • Inclusive education does not require a lot of additional resources. A quality inclusive education system, with well-trained teachers and strong peer support, can provide education access to as many as 80-90% of learners with disabilities in mainstream schools with only minor additional support.
    (International Disability and Development Consortium, 2016)
  • Providing education to children with disabilities has many social benefits. It has been linked to lower crime rates, improved health and family planning, and increased citizen participation.
    (Hayes & Bulat, 2017)
  • Educating children with disabilities has high returns on investment. In the Philippines, returns on education for people with disabilities in terms of higher earnings can reach more than 25%.
    (International Disability and Development Consortium, 2016)  (Mori & Yamagata, 2009)
  • When people with disabilities receive higher levels of education, their household is less likely to live in poverty. In low- and middle-income countries, for each additional year of schooling that an adult with a disability aquires, the likelihood that their household belongs to the two poorest quintiles falls by 2-5%.
    (International Disability and Development Consortium, 2016)  (Filmer, 2008)
  • Inclusive education settings can improve a child's education prospects and their social skills. Children with learning disabilities or developmental disorders have shown to develop better behaviours and improved social skills in inclusive settings. The support received from inclusive education settings increases the likelihood of enrolment in higher education for students with SEN.
    (OECD, 2022)
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Key opinion
Rosangela Berman Bieler
Rosangela Berman-Bieler
UNICEF Global Lead on Disability
We can and must do more to ensure the nearly quarter of a billion children with disabilities worldwide are able to realise their rights. We must provide children with disabilities with equal opportunities by ensuring community support and services are inclusive and accessible, stigma and discrimination are eradicated, and that they are protected from violence, abuse and neglect. There is a story behind every statistic – a child with hopes, fears, potential and ambitions.
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Key talking points
  • In 10 low and middle income countries, children with disabilities were 19% less likely to achieve minimum proficiency in reading than those without disabilities.
  • Inclusive education has been shown to be the best method for educating children with disabilities, rather than segregating them into special schools or classes.
  • Inclusive education is a low-cost investment with high returns. It cannot be considered a luxury.
  • Mandating the integration of children with disabilities into the regular classroom is not enough. It also requires more teacher training and additional need-specific support and resources.
  • Only 10% of countries have laws supporting full inclusion in education.
  • When people with disabilities receive higher levels of education, their household will be less likely to live in poverty.
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