The unprecedented impact of the COVID -19 pandemic across the world is well documented, including its negative effect on education systems, learners, and communities. But marginalized groups, such as children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable if there are prolonged school closures, and when schools reopen.
Children with disabilities face increased risks, as they are likely to be more affected (1) by reduced access to prevention and support measures. School closures also lead to disruptions in daily routines which can be particularly difficult for many children with developmental disabilities and cause significant pressure on their families and caregivers, who require additional support. (2)
Schools closures, impacting over half of the world’s population of school children, not only disrupt learning, but also access to food programs, social support, personal assistance or medical care, which are often available through schools. Without the protective and social environment of schools and the services associated with it, children are more exposed to violence and vulnerability. And this has the potential to be for a prolonged period of time especially in areas where it will be harder to control the spread of the disease. (3)
In the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, the closure of temporary learning centres means that many children will not be receiving critical daily healthy meals. Some school systems have set up takeaway meals; others are advocating for cash transfers or voucher systems that would allow families to purchase food normally provided by schools. (4)
Girls and boys with disabilities often live in some of the poorest families, face discrimination in their communities and are not prioritised in terms of education. The risk of exclusion is even higher in this time of crisis. Children with disabilities are also more likely to drop out of school than their peers – and there is a real risk that those who leave school now may not return in the long-term. (5)
Alongside other actors, Humanity & Inclusion (HI) and its partners are supporting national and local authorities to ensure that children with disabilities are prioritised in public initiatives to target the most marginalised groups. For example, it is crucial that any education cluster contingency plans promote active learning solutions and are inclusive, child-friendly, and accessible for all children.
Most countries, including low and middle income countries (i.e. Rwanda, Malawi and Somalia) (6), are trying to put in place home schooling options, either through online alternatives, sending work home to the children via schools, or by radio or television transmission, internet platforms or a mixture of these approaches. For example, in Rwanda, HI are supporting the government to make sure that scripts and lessons for television programmes are developed in an inclusive way, following inclusive education principles, and ensuring that sign language interpreters are also part of the broadcasts.
While considering alternative provision to education during this pandemic, reasonable accommodations and accessibility measures should be provided, to support the individual needs of children with disabilities. For example, children who are deaf should be able to access the same information as is provided on a radio broadcast such as access to written materials, or video options with sign language.
There are also a number of open source distance learning options that are possible to use offline such as Kolibri, which provides access to an openly licensed educational content library. Kolibri is compatible to be used with software such as screen readers, to support learners who are blind for example. UNESCO’s compilation of specific distance learning solutions gives a range of options, and there is also a wealth of useful resources at INEE , including some specific recommendations about distance learning for children with disabilities.
Children with intellectual disabilities must also be considered, by ensuring that the content of the lessons is appropriate for them, delivered at a speed they can understand and follow, and their learning should be supported as much as possible (7).
When schools were closed during the Ebola outbreak in 2015, in Sierra Leone, HI was involved in supporting radio lessons by mobilising community-based rehabilitation volunteers to support learners with intellectual disabilities in small groups. Such close proximity between groups of individuals is difficult in many countries at present, but in the post- acute phase, this kind of approach could be helpful to allow learners to understand content better. At the moment, individual support to the most vulnerable families, is being provided, to help with home-based learning.
SDG 4 sets the commitment to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”, including persons with disabilities. The global review of SDG 4, in 2019, showed that the world is not at all on track to deliver on its education commitments by 2030. The call to focus on equity must now be prioritised for targets to be met. At least 50% of children with disabilities in low- and middle-income countries were already out of school before the pandemic. (8) The COVID-19 crisis is negatively affecting the schooling of all children and young people, especially vulnerable groups, thus jeopardizing the SDG 4 promise even more than before.
The unprecedented scope and gravity of this crisis calls for international solidarity and a coordinated and ambitious response at global level. Civil society organisations, teachers, learners and families should now join together to call for quality and inclusive education both during and beyond this crisis. HI has joined wider education advocacy on COVID 19, at national and global levels (for example, via a national coalition in Uganda (9) and within the Global Campaign for Education and global partners). It is essential to mobilise adequate political will, technical resources, and funding to support accessible forms of distance learning, investment in teacher training and sufficient funds for innovative, accessible technology.
Funding for inclusive education is needed now, more than ever before.
Valentina works as an advocacy officer at Humanity & Inclusion (HI), focusing on the topics of inclusive education and rehabilitation in health systems. Prior to joining HI, she worked in the fields of advocacy and project management for different NGOs and networks (including Youth for Understanding, Tostan, and the International Diabetes Federation), both in Europe and overseas. She has academic background in human rights and international development.
Julia is a Global Inclusive Education Specialist and Team Leader for Education projects, at Humanity & Inclusion. She is a co –chair of the Inclusive Education Task group in the International Disability and Development Consortium, and an active member of the Global Campaign for Education UK. She has 18 years’ professional experience including overseas experience in the education development sector, working in Nigeria and Uganda as a teacher trainer and lecturer with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), supporting the development of inclusive schools and previously working as a speech and language therapist in education settings. She has an academic background in International development with a focus on disability and Inclusive Education.
- INEE, UNICEF, Save the Children, Plan International, Humanity & Inclusion, Finnish Church Aid, ‘Learning must go on: Recommendations for keeping children safe and learning, during and after the COVID-19 crisis’, April 2020.
- UNESCO, How is the Coronavirus affecting learners with disabilities?
- UNESCO, Coronavirus School Closures
- IDDC, ‘IDDC Inclusive Education Task Group response to COVID-19’, 6th April 2020.
- Education Commission, ‘The Learning Generation Report : Investing in education for a changing world’, 2016.
- AWYAD, AVSI, Catholic Relief Services, Finn Church Aid, Humanity & Inclusion, International Rescue Committee, Jesuit Refugee Service, Norwegian Refugee Council, PALMCorps, Plan International, Save the Children, Street Child, Tutapona, War Child Holland, Windle International Uganda, ZOA, ‘COVID-19 response in Uganda: Keep children learning and safe while schools are closed’, 27th March 2020.