Including learners with disabilities in COVID-19 education responses

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UNESCO joined its partners in the Global Action on Disability (GLAD) Network to raise awareness on the urgent need to put in place strategies and measures to mitigate the impact of school closures on learners with disabilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on learners with disabilities who were already experiencing social and educational disadvantage. As many as half of the estimated 65 million primary and lower secondary-school age children with disabilities in developing countries were already out of school before COVID-19 according to GLAD.

‘They face a lack of accessible public health information, significant barriers to implement basic hygiene measures, and inaccessible health facilities’, said United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres. Girls and women with disabilities in particular face greater risks such as domestic violence.

Learners with disabilities are also least likely to benefit from distance learning solutions, as recently noted in a policy brief on ‘Persons with Disabilities and COVID-19’.

With COVID-related school closures, many countries have turned to online instruction to ensure continuity of learning. However, the focus on online learning means that many learners with disabilities are left behind. This is especially the case for girls with disabilities who are among the most marginalized due to social and gender norms and bias around both disability and gender.

Ensuring that all learners with disabilities continue to receive quality education requires urgent actions that consider their specific needs for accessible, adapted and individualized learning plans. Blended approaches combining lower tech or no tech solutions, captioning and sign-language options, and including integrating remedial classes can better support those who have been excluded from home-based learning and ensure that social and emotional needs are met.

The general statement issued by GLAD members, of which UNESCO is member, recommends five key principles and calls for a greater mobilization to ensure that the right to education of learners with disabilities is ensured. Principles include considerations to include all learners’ needs into COVID-19 responses and recognize the existing inequality in access for persons with disabilities. They also call for a stronger support to families, educators and curriculum developers.

At its peak, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted, and in places interrupted, the education of 1.5 billion learners around the world. UNESCO, through its Global Education Coalition, calls on the international community to ensure continuity of learning, inclusion and equity for all learners.