Ensuring that persons with disabilities have access to education: A regional responsibility

by Joseph Wangija, Guest Contributor

On the 9th of August, 1965, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew was devastated after realising that the merger between Malaysia and Singapore had come to an abrupt end after only two years. Singapore had few natural resources and its prospects did not look promising. One of the few available viable resources was a dilapidated seaport. The residents lacked not just economic resources, but a shared history. Despite those bleak prospects, Lee discovered that economic development could not be attained without human development.To achieve human development, however, educational reforms were a necessary prerequisite. As such, Lee Kuan Yew embarked on educational reforms. Today, with a GDP per capita of US$56,319, Singapore is a developed country (UNESCO, 2009).

It is widely acknowledged that education is the surest way through which persons with or without disabilities can be empowered. Education is also one of the United Nations fundamental human rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), of which all nations with the exception of the United States have ratified, recognises the human rights of all children, including those with disabilities.  Although education is a human right, children with disabilities continue to face hurdles in enjoying this right. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that 98% of children with disabilities - especially those from developing countries - do not attend schools (UNESCO, 2009). As a consequence, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that globally, literacy rate for adults with disabilities is as low as 3% and 1% for women with disabilities (UNDP, 1998).

In the context of this article, disability can be viewed as a social construct and is “the disadvantage and exclusion which arise as an outcome of the interactions between people who have impairments and the social and environmental barriers they face due to the failure of society to take account of their rights and needs" (VSO, 2006, p.6).

In the English-speaking Caribbean, available data indicates that the education of children with disabilities is still lagging behind. In Jamaica, for example, it is estimated that only 10% of children with disabilities are enrolled in formal school-based and other programmes which receive funding from the Government (UNICEF, 2006). In Guyana, about 15% of persons with disabilities have never attended school and the proportion dramatically increases to 42% for those less than 16 years (Mitchell, 2004). In Trinidad and Tobago, a Newsday article found that the Ministry of Education’s 2004 survey of students up to 19 years of age indicated that 32% of students were “learning, behaviourally and/or intellectually challenged" (Newsday, 2009). In a study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on vulnerable children in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, many respondents said that a major challenge was the lack of provision of infrastructure, specialised teachers, support, etc. within the education system for children with disabilities, which leads to their exclusion (UNICEF, 2006).

Exclusion equals wastage

Persons with disabilities form part of a nation’s valuable human resource. Unfortunately, their potential often remains under-utilised, as persons with disabilities are often excluded from education (UNICEF, 2011). Conversely, people with disabilities are often over-represented amongst those of low economic standings, while they are under-represented in the halls of academia (Handicap International, 2013). Under-representation can be attributed to lack of disability-friendly services in schools and the discrimination and barriers they face in their everyday lives, including access to education. The good news is that these barriers can be addressed, thereby paving way for the empowerment of persons with disabilities.

One of the mechanisms of addressing the aforementioned challenges is early identification of disabilities. The surest way to empower an individual with disability is to identify and address the conditions which disempower (disable) him/her during youth. In this way, as the individual progresses through life, the acquired adaptive mechanisms/skills solidify, thus paving the way for self-dependence. However, early identification of disabilities might be successful if it is constructed through a social model framework, which concerns itself with the identification and reduction of obstacles that hinder persons with disabilities in society. As such, a process of early identification of disabilities would seek not only to identify individual impairments, but also to identify and reduce obstacles that hinder the equal participation of disabled individuals within society.

These social obstacles include: attitudes, stereotypes and discriminatory tendencies. Research to inform policy and planning is equally crucial. The success of inclusive education in one of Guyana’s hinterland regions can be attributed to research. While it is true that Caribbean governments have invested heavily in education, funding for special education needs remains very meagre (Wong, 2015). It seems counter-productive to invest money into education without first addressing the barriers which inhibit the performance of children in this field.

The relationship between schools and communities needs to be enhanced. We cannot be fully productive when key players do not have cohesive and complementary strategies. In the Caribbean, ensuring that persons with disabilities acquire an education must be everybody’s responsibility because school dropout rates in the Caribbean are in some cases 20% higher than the average in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) (Kaiteur News, 2015). It is likely that factors related to disability and special educational needs are contributing to this issue. School dropout can also be associated with high teenage pregnancies, drug abuse, disease, high dependence levels and crime. These are common occurrences in the Caribbean and affect us all. Thus, “Every Kid Needs a Champion” observes Rita Pierson, the late renowned educator (Pierson, 2013).

Will citizens of our nations please stand up and champion the education of children with disabilities?


Questions to ponder:

  • In your country, what are some of the strategies that have been implemented to ensure that children with disabilities have access to education?
  • Which strategies would you employ in your country to promote early identification of disabilities?
  • Does your country have sufficient centres for identifying disabilities in children? If so, can you make suggestions for others?
  • Can you share stories of children with disabilities who are currently in the education system of your country? What challenges have they faced? What accommodations have been made to ensure that they are meaningfully included into their learning environments? 



Bishop, V. (2009, August 4th). Features. Retrieved from Trinidad and Tobago Newday: http://www.newsday.co.tt/features/0,104929.html

Caribbean, U. O. (2006). A study of child vulnerability in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Retrieved from http://www.unicef.org/easterncaribbean/cao_resources_vulnerability.pdf

International, H. (2013). Equal Right. Equal Opportunity. Inclusive Education for Children with Disabilities. Retrieved from Global Campaign for Education: http://campaignforeducation.org/docs/reports/Equal%20Right,%20Equal%20Opportunity_WEB.pdf

Knews. (2015, February 10th). School dropout rates in Caribbean up 20% – IDB. Retrieved from Kaieteur News Online: http://www.kaieteurnewsonline.com/2015/02/10/school-dropout-rates-in-caribbean-up-20-idb/

Mitchel, H. (2004). Raising the Profile of Disability in Guyana: an Agenda for Action. National Commission on Disability. Georgetown.

Overseas, V. S. (2006). A handbook on Mainstreaming Disability. London: VSO.

Pierson, R. (2013, May). Every kid needs a Champion. Retrieved from TED: https://www.ted.com/talks/rita_pierson_every_kid_needs_a_champion?language=en

UNDP. (1998). Human Development Report. New York: Oxford University Press., Inc.

UNICEF. (2006, November). A study of child vulnerability in Barbados, St. Lucia and St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Retrieved from UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/easterncaribbean/cao_resources_vulnerability.pdf

UNICEF. (2006). Situational Analysis on Excluded Children in Jamaica Update 2006. Retrieved from UNICEF WEbsite: http://www.unicef.org/jamaica/resources_3950.htm

UNICEF. (2012). The Right of Children with Disabilities to Education: A Rights-Based Approach to Inclusive Education in the CEECIS Region. Retrieved from UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/ceecis/IEPositionPaper_ENGLISH.pdf

Wong, R. (2015, November 2nd). Local News. Retrieved from Stabroek News: http://www.stabroeknews.com/2015/news/stories/11/02/unheard-unseen-and-underserved-differently-abled-persons-seek-success-despite-weak-support/


About the Author

Joseph WangjiaJoseph Wangija is an expert in special and inclusive education and he currently works with the Ministry of Education, Guyana as a Special Education Needs Specialist. His research interests include: inclusive education, gender and disability, disability identification and empowerment of youths with disabilities.

Joseph can be contacted at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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