What we know (and the great deal we don’t) about education and disability

By Silvia Montoya, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS)
This blog was also published by ONE

New analysis confirms that persons with disabilities are nearly always worse off than those without disabilities when it comes to education 

Persons with disabilities are among the most marginalised groups in any society. Many face daily discrimination in the form of negative or even hostile attitudes and are often excluded from their fundamental human rights by poor policy choices and lack of specialised services and support. For children with disabilities, this exclusion can include the denial of the basic right to a quality education.

This matters because their wellbeing is a key barometer for progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with their emphasis on equity and on ensuring that nobody is left behind. However, hard evidence on the educational disparities linked to disability has long been marred by a lack of reliable and comparable data.

One problem has been the ‘invisibility’ of children with disabilities, with many thought to be undiagnosed, hidden at home or consigned to ‘special’ schools and, therefore, missing from mainstream education statistics. As a result, we are not even sure of their number. Some estimates suggest there are at least 93 million children with disabilities worldwide but the numbers could be much, much higher, according to UNICEF. Without this basic knowledge, it is so harder to estimate their educational status.

However, a new paper from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) is a step in the right direction, as the first in-depth analysis of the available data across 49 countries. Education and Disability sets out what we know – and what we don’t – about this challenge.

Not surprisingly, there are caveats around the analysis due to the quality of the data. Cross-national comparability of the data is limited because, for example, not all national surveys and censuses used the standard set of questions developed by the Washington Group on Disability Statistics (WG) and UNICEF to identify adults and children with disabilities. Nevertheless, the analysis provides a good overview of inequalities linked to disability and the gaps that must be overcome to achieve equity in education.

The findings are sobering. They confirm that persons with disabilities are nearly always worse off than those without disabilities when it comes to access to and completion of education. They are less likely to ever attend school, more likely to be out of school and have often had far fewer years of education than others. They are less likely to complete primary or secondary education, and are less likely to possess basic literacy skills.

The analysis examined five education indicators based on data from three sources, collected between 2005 and 2015: Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) sponsored by USAID, School-to-Work Transition Surveys (SWTS) by ILO, and population census data compiled by IPUMS-International.

  1. The proportion of those aged 15 to 29 who have ever attended school

Persons with disabilities between the ages of 15 to 29 are less likely to have attended school than those without in almost all of the 37 countries for which data were available: on average, 77% of them have been to school, compared to 87% of those without disabilities. In absolute terms, the largest gaps are found in Viet Nam 2009 (44% vs. 97%), Egypt 2006 (43% vs. 89%) and Indonesia 2010 (53% vs. 98%).

  1. Out-of-school rate for children of primary and lower secondary school age

The UIS examined data on out-of-school rates and disability for six countries that participated in Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS): Cambodia, Colombia, Gambia, Maldives, Uganda and Yemen. But even such a small sample is enough to reveal some alarming disparities. The biggest gap is seen in Cambodia, with a 50-percentage-point difference between the 57% of children with disabilities who are out of school (1 in every 2), compared to 7% of other children (1 in every 14).

  1. Completion rate for primary and lower secondary education

Children with disabilities are not only more likely to be out of school, they are also less likely to complete primary education than other children in the six countries with DHS data. This has a knock-on effect, making it far less likely that they will complete lower secondary education or move on to higher education. Only 36% of adolescents with disabilities complete lower secondary education compared to 53% of adolescents without disabilities in the six countries that were analysed.

  1. Mean years of schooling for those aged 25 and older

Mean years of schooling is the number of completed years of formal education at the primary level or higher, not counting years spent repeating individual grades. On average across the 22 countries and territories with data, people aged 25 years and older without disabilities have 7 years of schooling, compared with 4.8 years for those with disabilities.

  1. Adult literacy rate for those aged 15 and older

In all 25 countries with relevant data, the adult literacy rate for those with disabilities is lower than for other adults. The gap ranges from 5% in Mali to 41% in Indonesia, where the vast majority of adults without disabilities (93%) have basic literacy skills, compared to only half (52%) of adults with disabilities. Large gaps are also seen in Iran, where 80% of persons without disabilities are literate, compared with 49% of those with disabilities; and Viet Nam, where a high adult literacy rate of 94% for those without disabilities stands in stark contrast to a literacy rate of 59% among persons with disabilities.

The data also reveal that women with disabilities are often less likely to reap the benefits of a formal education than disabled men – marginalised not only by their disability but also by their gender. In most countries, men with disabilities have higher literacy rates than women with disabilities. The widest gap is seen in Mozambique, where almost one in every two men with disabilities (49%) can read and write, compared to only one in six women with disabilities (17%).

The disadvantages already faced by persons with disabilities are likely to intensify in combination with other factors of exclusion linked to location, poverty and other personal and household characteristics, but this was beyond the scope of the analysis in this paper. UNICEF has found that children with disabilities are likely to be among the poorest members of the population, less likely than others to have their voices heard in society, less likely to access medical services and less likely to go to school.

The analysis calls for greater efforts to improve the evidence base for future analytical work and for policy guidance in support of efforts to achieve SDG 4. Its recommendations include a comprehensive inventory of all the data currently available to establish national baselines for SDG 4 monitoring on disability and a call for more widespread use of the questions developed by the Washington Group and UNICEF to identify adults and children with disabilities. The analysis also calls for improvements in the availability of internationally-comparable data on disability, education and other areas through the compilation and standardisation of data collected in past and future surveys, following internationally-agreed standards.

These recommendations require additional funding from international donors and foundations. With greater support, all stakeholders can work together to better identify and reach disadvantaged people through more targeted policies and efficient allocation of resources to provide equitable educational opportunities for all.

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