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Putting Southern-led research into action for disability-inclusive education

profile of Naser Faruqui

Naser Faruqui

Director, Education and Science, IDRC

I was one of the witnesses who appeared at the Canadian House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development in late 2023. As the subcommittee gathered analysis and insights for its study of international disability-inclusive education, I found myself in familiar company and voicing a familiar message on an important subject to us all: how can we make sure the most vulnerable students have equal access to education?  

A recent UNICEF study shows that half of children with disabilities in low- and middle-income countries do not finish school, with girls facing disproportionate challenges. The timely study by the subcommittee can help address the need for practical solutions. 

Many of my fellow witnesses at the parliamentary subcommittee (representatives of organizations like Plan International and UNICEF, which IDRC is happy to call partners) made clear the need for action on disability-inclusive education. I championed the need for, and power of, research and evidence to respond effectively to the educational needs of people with disabilities. 

There is genuine demand in the Global South for evidence on the most effective ways to strengthen education for all learners. Two principles underpin IDRC’s response to this demand: that those closest to development challenges are the best-suited to find innovative solutions, and that it’s important to share what works across regions and internationally. 

Here are four areas where IDRC is showing that by strengthening the critical evidence, we can advance disability-inclusive education, not just in the future, but today.  

First, we need to better understand the realities of children living with disabilities to improve their education access and learning. Without clear data on disabilities, including baselines and gaps, we are unable to respond to all children’s needs. Through the Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX), our collaboration with the Global Partnership for Education, IDRC is supporting countries to strengthen their education data systems, including integrating data on disabilities to provide schools with the information they need to plan for inclusive education. Traditional education management information systems tend to be centralized. This means that significant challenges related to equity, including issues concerning children with disabilities, are frequently overlooked. In Uganda, KIX researchers are working on a decentralized education management information system that empowers districts to collect, validate and utilize data for planning and resource allocation. One concrete result: with improved routine data collection and analysis, including on learners with disability, Gulu district advocated for extra resources for constructing classroom ramps in four primary schools to address the needs of children with disabilities.  

Second, ensuring inclusive education in the early years is critical to identify disabilities and pave the way for success throughout a child’s education. IDRC is supporting community-based pre-primary centres to identify and include children with multiple types of disabilities, early on, especially in rural communities where these children can fall through the cracks. In Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe, children with developmental delays experienced a transformative journey through the Inclusive Home-based Early Learning Project (IHELP), part of the KIX program. The IHELP initiative focuses on inclusive early learning for children who are physically unable to attend pre-school, such as those with disabilities. Through a collaborative model involving parents, communities and governments, the project establishes home-based learning centers where children who were unable to sit or walk quickly progress, smiling, walking and communicating within weeks. The centres not only facilitate children's holistic development but also integrate them into local government and education systems. The project has made a significant impact, prompting the creation of more than 30 centres in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. 

Third, it’s clear that disability-inclusive initiatives cannot be isolated from the overall system. We’re learning how to integrate inclusive education into public education systems adapted to local contexts.  For instance, we are helping equip teachers, school leaders and parents with the skills they need to integrate learners with disabilities into education systems, including by empowering school principals to support greater disability inclusion in their schools. In Bhutan and Bangladesh, research conducted with teacher-training institutes equips educators with skills to promote inclusion and gender equality through the Know Your Child project, also part of KIX. This approach considers diverse factors like health issues, language needs and learning styles.  

Finally, harnessing the potential of technologies in the classroom and ensuring that they are inclusive is a challenge that must be met. The latest Global Education Monitoring report from UNESCO – to which IDRC contributed – focused squarely on the issue of education technology (EdTech). The report noted that accessible technology and universal design have opened up opportunities for learners with disabilities, but it also warned that quality impartial evidence on the impact of EdTech overall is in short supply.  

IDRC has been supporting research in this sector for nearly two decades, helping in the development and implementation of EdTech with gender equality, equity and inclusion at its core.  

We are also a leading supporter of artificial intelligence (AI) research and innovation to advance international development goals, working with researchers and innovators from across low- and middle-income countries who are exploring how to harness AI to make education more inclusive. Language is an area where responsible AI technologies offer solutions. For example, we’re supporting the development of an assistive technology that translates spoken English to Kenyan Sign Language using virtual signing characters. This will help Kenyans with hearing disabilities access education more easily, as there are few qualified Kenyan Sign Language interpreters in the country.  

Building evidence on what works to ensure that no one is left behind in education is critical. Sharing that evidence to enable joint learning and policy uptake is equally important to help students with disabilities to get the education they deserve and fulfil their full potential. That outcome promises to benefit us all.