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Access and learning are equally important for children with disabilities
Posted By Nidhi Singal and Ricardo Sabates

The clock is now ticking towards the goal of ensuring ‘inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ by 2030. For the first time, people with disabilities are explicitly recognized within the global targets. Yet, we still have too little information on how far behind children with disabilities are in education, and the extent of efforts needed to reach them.

There is still much more to be done in order to get accurate figures on access to schooling for children with disabilities. But enrollment figures in some countries, such as India, suggest an increasing trend. However, there are currently no measures for establishing learning levels of children with disabilities.

Kausar Imtaiz, a school teacher conducts English class in Government girls high school Killa Kanci, Quetta city, Baluchistan province, Pakistan. © UNICEF/UNI167440/Zaidi


In OECD countries, learning outcomes are commonly assessed via large scale testing such as PISA. These assessments frequently exclude children with disabilities by design. In poorer countries, citizenship-led initiatives such as ASER in India and Pakistan, UWEZO in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, are beginning to help fill a gap in accountability systems for identifying children’s learning. It is promising that these initiatives are taking steps to include children with disabilities.

Including children with disabilities in learning assessments

In 2015, ASER Pakistan included children with disabilities in their large scale assessment with the aim of identifying both the numbers of children with disabilities enrolled in schools and their level of learning.  The questions used in this survey drew heavily on the short list of questions developed by the Washington Group on Disability Statistics with adaptations in language based on UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) to identify of children with disabilities.

For example, respondents were not simply asked, ‘Do you have a child with a disability’, which has been found to be stigmatizing and resulting in low response rates. Rather the questions were framed with a focus on ‘difficulties’ that children have in undertaking basic activities compared to others of the same age group.

Findings from the ASER Pakistan 2015 survey provide interesting insights. Of the approximately 60,000 children surveyed in 36 rural districts of Punjab, findings suggest that 1.2% of children were reported as having ‘moderate to severe difficulties’ in seeing, hearing, walking, caring, understanding or remembering.

Of these the majority of children were reported having difficulties in caring (0.4%).  Of the total sample a larger proportion (3.8%) was reported to have ‘mild difficulties’ in these areas. The majority of reported mild difficulties were also in the category of caring (1.4%), followed by seeing (0.9%) and remembering (0.9%). While the proportions of children reported to having difficulties are not very high, the absolute number is not negligible and the significant variation in educational opportunities and learning outcomes is starkly highlighted in the survey findings.

Children with moderate to severe difficulties least likely to be in school

Survey results suggest that the likelihood of educational access for children with mild levels of difficulties is almost the same as for children who reported no difficulties in undertaking basic activities. Unfortunately, this is not the case for children reported to have moderate to severe difficulties. These children are more likely to have never been enrolled in school, in contrast to those reporting no difficulties. Interestingly, once in school the likelihood of dropout is not dependent on the reported status of difficulties.

Relative probability of educational access by disability status

Patterns for exclusion become more pronounced when contrasting children with moderate to severe difficulties to those with mild difficulties and those with no difficulties at all (see figure 1). Children with moderate to severe difficulties are: i) more likely to have never been enrolled than children with no difficulties and ii) less likely to be currently enrolled than children with no difficulties.

Children with moderate to severe difficulties are least likely to be learning

Using ASER learning assessment tools which are designed to capture basic learning in reading, arithmetic and english, it is apparent that children with disabilities are least likely to be learning (see figure 2).

Proportion of children attaining each level, within each category of reported difficulties

Findings from the survey show that across the types of difficulties, children reported as having moderate to severe difficulties are at the lowest level of the learning scale. These children were unable to read simple letters or recognize single digit numbers. For example, 60% of children reported to have moderate to severe difficulties were at this level in the reading task, in contrast with 14% for those reporting mild or no difficulty.

The pattern is similar for math and English. Children with moderate to severe difficulties in seeing and hearing faced the greatest difficulties in learning in the survey, with no child with these reported difficulties reaching above the lowest level.

Children with disabilities need more support

The ASER survey findings are a poignant indication of how we continue to fail children with disabilities:

  • They highlight the vast discrepancies in learning levels among children with disabilities and those without disabilities. This is the first step in recognition of a serious problem. While more evidence on the nature and extent of the problem is needed, efforts of ASER Pakistan are a laudable first step. These efforts build on our Teaching Effectively All Children (TEACh) project, which aims to identify the extent to which children who face multiple disadvantages— including related to poverty, gender and disability—are learning. The project also looks at teaching reforms needed to support them.

  • These findings also dispel assumptions that if children with disabilities are in school, they will learn. Current efforts focused on increasing enrollment for children with disabilities are misdirected. In order to fulfil the promises of new Sustainable Development Goal for education (SDG 4) we need to include children with disabilities in indicators of learning and not just schooling.


Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of ASER Pakistan.
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