Disabled girls are among the most marginalised and poorly educated groups in the world. They have not been a priority in international development, education, or arguably, disability organisations.
The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative recently released Still Left Behind: Pathways to inclusive education for girls with disabilities, a long overdue clarion call to educators and policy makers to address the education of disabled girls .
The report comprehensively lays out barriers to education, international frameworks and policies as they relate to disabled girls, and recommendations to increase both the number of disabled girls, and the quality of their education, in schools. It combines the often separate worlds of gender equality and disability rights to initiate a much-needed conversation on improving education quality for disabled girls.
Much of the report rightly focuses on the absence of evidence where girls’ education intersects with disability. It highlights that not much has changed “since 2003 with regards to the quantity of available research and evidence on the effective inclusion of girls with disabilities in education.” We know little more than we did 15 years ago. Indeed the report points to a glaring paucity of useful, publicly available research and analysis to share and support a deepened understanding of the barriers, successes and added value of educating girls with disabilities.
There is increased awareness around inclusive education at the government level as well as more emphasis on inclusive education by many international development and education organisations - UN Women recently released the Issue Brief: Making SDGs Count for Women and Girls with Disabilities. However, few academic articles, government or education reports focus on disabled girls.
The report highlights that disabled girls are more likely to be kept out of school and are at greater risk of bullying and school-related gender-based violence. Getting to and from school can be unsafe for disabled girls in particular. And once they are at school, school infrastructure and sanitation facilities may not be accessible. The research also notes that girls are less likely to receive assistive devices and technologies.
Ultimately, one of the greatest barriers to effectively educating disabled girls includes the perpetuation of discriminatory social norms, and attitudes held by society. In addition, lack of teacher training on inclusive educational practices is highlighted as a potential barrier to disabled girls realising their full academic potential. A forthcoming EI publication entitled Rethinking Disability also notes that addressing social attitudes to disability, as these are naturally also reflected in educational settings, is an essential aspect of building inclusive classrooms.
Still Left Behind effectively interrogates the social norms that underpin disability AND gender inequality to reveal how disabled girls are further affected by both their status as girls and as disabled. Still more research is needed to explore the multiple intersections (race, caste, class, indigeneity, sexuality, etc.) in order to better understand how to support disabled girls education.
For educators, the question remains how do we actually educate children holistically? How do we effectively meet each child at her particular intersection of gender, ability and race, class, caste, sexuality, migration status, indigeneity and so on? With increased conflicts, forced migrations across the globe, and increased life expectancy, we need to understand that disability is not an exception to the norm, it is the norm in many places and at various stages of life.
Educators and education unions are well positioned to take up some of the recommended actions in the Report; specifically:
-EI and member unions can lobby for targeted investment in education for girls with disability; and gender sensitive approaches to the design of inclusive education generally, with attention to gender outcomes and with special attention to SRGBV in the planning of inclusive classrooms and schools.
-EI and member unions can lobby for resources for increased teacher and school staff training opportunities, which include sensitivity training on girls and disability.
-Given that there is little research, evaluation, or data to tell us what works and how, educators should push for and contribute to efforts to monitor gender and education outcomes.
-And finally, disabled girls should be made and kept a priority across disability, gender equality and education organisations.
For Education International and its members, this Report powerfully pushes us to consider that “investments in teacher training and child-friendly, safer and accessible infrastructure would benefit ALL children”. Effectively educating disabled girls should not be on educator or government wish lists (something we can get to once we have the ‘resources’). Investing resources in disabled girls education is investing in inclusive education.
 I prefer the terminology of disabled girls instead of girls with disability, because I do not see disability as something people live with, but instead I see it as central to a person’s identity. I acknowledge that this is not the most commonly used terminology and for some may be controversial.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.