Raising Awareness of the Barriers Children with Disabilities face to Access Quality Education on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities

By Melissa Philippou

3 December 2020

Today, approximately 15% of the world’s population, over 1 billion people, live with some form of disability[1]. Every year, the 3rd of December marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD)[2], a day aiming to promote the wellbeing and rights of persons with disabilities and to raise awareness of the political, economic, social and cultural aspects of their lives[3]. The term ‘persons with disabilities’ refers to any individual with short or long term disabilities, including mental, intellectual, physical, or sensory impairments which limit his/her/their effective and equal participation within society when interacting with several environmental and attitudinal factors[4].

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)[5], ratified in 2006 by 182 parties, lays the foundation for an international legal framework on the rights and fundamental freedoms of persons with disabilities, through the implementation of new or renewed policies, legislations and programmes. The Convention represents the most rapidly-ratified human rights treaty on an international level, and the first to be ratified by a regional organization, the European Union[6].

This year, the IDPD coincides with the last day of the 13th Conference of States Parties to the CRPD, during which the States Parties are planned to review the actions for the inclusive sustainable development of persons with disabilities. Specifically, the main issues on the agenda are the implementation of the right of persons with disabilities to work in inclusive and accessible environments; addressing the needs and rights of older persons with disabilities; and the promotion of inclusive environments for the complete implementation of the Convention, with particular emphasis on women and girls with disabilities[7].
Yet, there are still many people with disabilities today that are victims of multiple forms of marginalization, discrimination, even oppression and violence, leading to their exclusion from education, employment and participation within society at large.

Indicatively, of the one billion people with disabilities globally, children and youth with disabilities comprise at least 93 million of them, the majority of whom live in developing countries[8]. It is the group most likely to be excluded from accessing educational facilities, resulting in extremely low literacy skill levels among the group. In fact, there are more than 32 million children and adolescents with disabilities globally that do not go to school[9], or have not completed their primary school education[10], despite the international commitment to eliminate and prevent discrimination practices in education[11] through UNESCO’s Convention against Discrimination in Education of 1960[12].

“We raise the flag for education as a universal human right — no one must be denied access because of disability. This is a UNESCO priority, and we are acting across the world to break down barriers for people with disabilities, to empower them as agents of change. This means transforming schools and learning centres. It means adapting teaching practices (…) to  remove  the  barriers to and in learning,  to  realize  the  full  and equal participation of all persons with disabilities in society.”[13]  – Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO (2009-2017)

Within the European Union, approximately 29% of young people with disabilities do not have access to either education, training or employment[14]. Whereas, in Africa, around 6% of children under the age of 14 have moderate or severe disabilities, while merely less than 10% of all children with disabilities below 14 years of age attend school[15]. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 1 in 4 students with disabilities completed secondary school[16], considering that children with disabilities are often excluded from efforts to improve educational systems and opportunities[17]. In certain countries, the percentage of children with disabilities is disproportionately high. In South Africa for example, it is estimated that children with disabilities represent 11.2% (more than 2.1 million) of the country’s population[18].

It is therefore of utmost importance to raise awareness of the most common challenges that children with disabilities face when attempting to exercise their right to quality education, while drawing attention to the central role of education in the equal development and access to employment and social protection of persons with disabilities.

Limiting the access to quality education of children with disabilities

There is a significant gap between the demand for supportive resources and services for students with disabilities and their supply[19]. In fact, the number of teachers’ Aides trained in providing support to children with disabilities is far too limited, paired with insufficient training opportunities and professional support. This raises the issue of the need to provide related training to all teachers in case of a lack of Aides. Similarly, the amount of supportive learning devices (i.e. vision and hearing aids, mobility devices) and adjusted school curriculums to meet the needs of students with disabilities is far below the required standards. This scarcity is oftentimes more evident in rural, regional and isolated areas, compromising the number of schools with provisions set to ensure the full access of children with disabilities to the curriculum.

Furthermore, one of the main factors challenging the accessibility of educational facilities by students with disabilities is the insufficient provisions and availability of disability support funds, aiming to cover the wide range of necessary services and resources[20]. Funds for disability support tend to be considered as low priority, while funding provisions do not apply to all types of disabilities, namely, mild learning and intellectual disabilities or behavioral problems.

Additionally, there is a lack of information to prospective students with disabilities and their families regarding their school options, education process and access to educational services[21]. As a consequence, many students and parents are not aware of the existence and benefits of inclusive schools or of ancillary services, such as therapy staff, Aides, interpreters and assistive equipment, which in turn can defer children with disabilities from attending school. Students with disabilities also receive insufficient information and guidance on pre-employment training opportunities, vocational education and support services for adults.

Perhaps the most important issue of the entire spectrum of barriers to access to quality education for children with disabilities is, or rather remains to be, discrimination[22]. In this context, discrimination refers to prejudice, intolerrance or harassement by school staff, non-disabled students and their families, and by the community at large. Instances of direct and indirect discrimination by school authorities can occur on a regular basis on the grounds of the disabilities of students, such as restricting access to support services and resources. In several cases, parents of non-disabled students do not support inclusive education on the basis that it may infringe on their children’s educational advancement. Lastly, people with disabilities are regrettably subject to attitudes of social exclusion, bullying, harassment and victimisation; actions that almost automatically destroy any efforts to create a safe, inclusive and equal learning environment that fosters the participation of people with disabilities, regardless of their age or type and extent of disability.


In support of an inclusive and equal learning process for the most vulnerable children, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF put forward five suggestions for school staff and teachers for addressing the most common barriers impeding their access to education[23]:

  1. Advocate for inclusive and accessible learning spaces: physical accessibility within school facilities is paramount for students with disabilities to ensure their safe access to classrooms, water and sanitation facilities. Learning materials should also be in accessible formats to accommodate the needs of students with different types of disabilities.
  2. Ensure accessibility to education on all levels: physical and mental access to education is often dependent on multi-sectoral limitations, such as commuting to and from school, easy access to healthcare, learning through assistive technological devices, the role of social services, and more. Thus, through intra-sectoral collaboration, such barriers can be lifted, safeguarding the smooth accessibility of people with disabilities to quality education.
  3. Training teachers for inclusive education: the preparation and orientation of teachers addressing inclusive education practices for children with disabilities is crucial, and it can assist in the support and encouragement of families to keep their children in school to reach their full potential.
  4. Community involvement: the strong involvement of not only a child’s parent and immediate family, but also of the community, has the potential to determine the successful outcome of inclusive education practices.
  5. Monitor progress of inclusive learning to define future strategies: qualitative and quantitative data should be collected on enrollment, drop out, attendance and completion patterns of students with disabilities, in combination with other factors, namely, geographical location, gender, religion, ethnicity, income level. Collecting and analysing this information on a national and international scale can determine the nature and next direction of inclusive learning policies and legislations.


Education is a human right that ought to be equally accessible to everyone, regardless of skin colour, gender, religion, ethnicity, class or disability. Unfortunately, multifaceted barriers confining the right of children with disabilities to access quality education are still prevalent across the world, notwithstanding the international boundaries and integrated efforts set for greater protection and inclusion of persons with disabilities, particularly children. Although certain progress has already been underway following years of conscience-awakening efforts, the road to complete equality in terms of access to quality education, employment, health and social protection is still uncomfortably long. A closer examination of the nature and extent of the implementation of this legal framework on a national scale could therefore provide insight into the areas that need to be further addressed in each country. In essence, addressing these challenges on both national and international levels can ensure the equitable educational advancement of children with disabilities, ultimately accomplishing an integral part of the overarching UN Sustainable Development Goal not to leave anyone behind[24].

[1] UNESCO (3 December 2019) Message from Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Available at: <https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000372157_eng> [Accessed: 29/11/2020].

[2] The IDPD was proclaimed following the adoption of the United Nations General Assembly resolution 47/3 on the 14th October 1992.

[3] United Nations (n.d.) International Day of Persons with Disabilities 3 December. Available at: <https://www.un.org/en/observances/day-of-persons-with-disabilities> [Accessed: 24/11/2020].

[4] United Nations (2007) Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): What Is Disability And Who Are Persons With Disabilities?. Available at: <https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable/faqs.htm#:~:text=The%20term%20persons%20with%20disabilities,in%20society%20on%20an%20equal> [Accessed: 25/11/2020].

[5] OHCHR (2006) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Available at:

< https://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/crpd/pages/conventionrightspersonswithdisabilities.aspx> [Accessed: 24/11/2020].

[6] European Disability Forum (n.d.) The EU Framework on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. Available at: < http://www.edf-feph.org/eu-framework-rights-persons-disabilities> [Accessed: 26/11/2020].

[7] United Nations (2020) 13th session of the Conference of States Parties to the CRPD. Available at:

<https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/conference-of-states-parties-to-the-convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities-2/cosp13.html> [Accessed: 24/11/2020].

[8] UNESCO (2015) The Right to education for persons with disabilities: overview of the measures supporting the right to education for persons with disabilities reported on by Member States. Available at:  <https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000232592> [Accessed: 25/11/2020].

[9] UNESCO (2 December 2019) Acting together for the education of persons with disabilities around the world. Available at: <https://en.unesco.org/news/acting-together-education-persons-disabilities-around-world> [Accessed: 25/11/2020].

[10] UNESCO (2015)

[11] OHCHR (2006)

[12] UNESCO (1960) Convention against Discrimination in Education 1960. Available at:

<http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=12949&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html> [Accessed: 25/11/2020].

[13] UNESCO (2015)

[14] European Commission (2018) Access to Quality Education for Children with Special Education Needs. Publication Office of the European Union

[15] The World Bank (30 November 2018) Disability-Inclusive Education in Africa Program. Available at: <https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/disability/brief/disability-inclusive-education-in-africa-program#:~:text=In%20Africa%2C%20an%20estimated%206.4,of%2014%20are%20attending%20school> [Accessed: 24/11/2020].

[16] Wodon, Q. and Alasuutari, H. (30 November 2018) The price of exclusion: Disability and education in Africa. Available at: <https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/price-exclusion-disability-and-education-africa [Accessed: 24/11/2020].

[17] UNICEF (2016) Eastern and Southern Africa regional study on the fulfilment of the right to education of children with disabilities. Pp. 39. Available at: <https://www.unicef.org/esaro/Regional-children-with-disabilities-UNICEF-EDT-2016.pdf> [Accessed: 24/11/2020].

[18] UNICEF (2016) Eastern and Southern Africa regional study on the fulfilment of the right to education of children with disabilities. Pp. 39. Available at: <https://www.unicef.org/esaro/Regional-children-with-disabilities-UNICEF-EDT-2016.pdf> [Accessed: 24/11/2020].

[19] Australian Human Rights Commission (n.d.) ACCESS TO EDUCATION FOR STUDENTS WITH A DISABILITY: BARRIERS AND DIFFICULTIES. Available at: <https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/access-education-students-disability-barriers-and-difficulties> [Accessed: 25/11/2020].

[20] Idem

[21] Idem

[22] Idem

[23] UNICEF (3 April 2020) Education: ALL MEANS ALL. Available at: <https://www.unicef.org/disabilities/index_65316.html> [Accessed: 25/11/2020].

[24] UNICEF (3 April 2020)