Words of wisdom keeping us on our toes

Pere Mittler. An outstanding leader in campaigning for the educational rights of children

Professor Peter Mittler. An outstanding leader in campaigning for the educational rights of children


One of the most perplexing aspects of writing this blog is that I am never quite sure about who is reading , what motivates them to come to the text and what they think about what I have written. Of course there are some individuals who post replies quite regularly and it is always good to have an exchange with them through this interesting media. I am informed by the regular analytical statistics provided by the site that since beginning this process about a month ago the blog has been visited by people from 21 countries. Some of these don’t surprise me, being based in England I had anticipated a few visits from the UK and similarly because of my regular commitments in India and Ireland I had thought there might be some interest there. Visitors to the blog from Iraq, Palestine and Botswana and other distant places were not expected, but are none the less welcome.

Today I received an email from an esteemed colleague who had read the blog and had been drawn in particular to my postings about the UNESCO Education For All Report. Several of the comments posted in response to my musings on this document have been particularly valued for helping me to move my own thinking forward, but to receive this communication by email added a further dimension. The email suggested that we should have particular concerns “about the invisibility of children with disabilities from an otherwise excellent report”. This is in fact an issue that I had intended to address in one of these postings but in many ways having received this email has added a certain urgency to the task.  The cause of this sudden jolt into action is the authority of the individual who despatched the mail. Professor Peter Mittler is indisputably one of the most influential researchers, writers and activists to have worked for the promotion of inclusive education through the latter half of the twentieth century and still active today. For many of us working in this field his influence and authority have been a guiding factor in our work for a more equitable society that recognises the rights of all individuals. When Peter speaks many of us sit up and take notice – his words of wisdom expressed by email have had the effect of keeping me on my toes!

Prompted by Peter’s mail I returned to the UNESCO report with his critical comments in mind. The suggestion that he makes that there is a lack of detail with regards to children with disability in the report is undoubtedly justified. The report acknowledged that:-

“Often children do not make it to school because of disadvantages they are born with. One of the most neglected disadvantages is disability. New analysis from four countries shows that children at higher risk of disability are far more likely to be denied a chance to go to school, with differences widening depending on the type of disability”.

A careful scrutiny of the UNESCO report shows quite clearly that it has produced little if anything by the way of new information, though it does draw upon data collected by other agencies and reported elsewhere. In particular the document refers to the World Report on Disability produced by the World Health Organisation in 2011.

According to the World Health Survey, in 14 of 15 low and middle income countries, people of working age with disabilities were about one-third less likely to have completed primary school.”

Peter’s frustration that the report gives inadequate attention to the issue of disability is certainly understandable. The influence of poverty, and deprivation upon the Education For All goals are very well presented within the UNESCO report and are certainly factors that impact upon the rate of disability and its management in socially and economically disadvantaged countries. However, it is equally true to say that in all societies having a child with a disability in the family can lead to poverty, social isolation and deprivation, the very factors discussed by UNESCO in this report. Here we have a particularly vicious circle that surely warrants the attention of us all.

Why then are disability matters not given the prominence that many of us would wish to see? The report indicates that:-

“Children with disabilities are often denied their right to education. However, little is known about their school attendance patterns. The collection of data on children with disabilities is not straightforward, but they are vital to ensure that policies are in place to address the constraints they face. Statistics on the education experience of children with disabilities are rare in part because household surveys, which tend to be the best source of information on access to school by different population groups, do not have sufficient information on the degree or type of disability, or their sample size is too small to make it possible to draw accurate conclusions”.

The reasoning given here relates entirely to the challenges of collecting accurate data with regards to the numbers of children presenting with disabilities.  This may well be factually accurate, but it is most certainly true that in all societies there is a recognition that where socio-economic difficulties, issues of conflict or natural disaster are common, the incidence of disability is likely to be great and the provision made to disabled children inadequate.

Whilst accepting that there are major challenges in quantifying  matters related to the numbers of disabled children in many of the countries reported, there are other important issues that would have benefited from a more detailed discussion. I would suggest that this is not a matter of numbers, but rather one of principle. It does not matter if we are talking about 100,000 or 30 million disabled children, the fact remains that every child deprived of access to appropriate schooling is an indictment upon society. The report highlights the need for increased training of teachers, the provision of supportive teaching and learning resources, the development of technology and the implementation of supportive assessment procedures. It gives excellent examples of where such innovation has reaped rewards for children, but fails to provide an indication of how the lives of disabled children have been transformed through these processes in some of the poorest areas of the world.

It is, of course, easy to be critical of a document that has so many excellent features. We should first of all commend the authors of the UNESCO report for the attention to detail that has been given to so many factors that lead to the marginalisation of children. But whilst accepting the reasons given for so little data related to children with disabilities, we should be pressing for changes to appear in the next report in order that we can all be given a clearer picture of both the challenges and the successes achieved in providing for disabled children.

When we voice our concerns we must do so in a supportive tone. But to remain quiet is not a reasonable option.

You can download a full copy of the report from: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/efareport/reports/2013


4 thoughts on “Words of wisdom keeping us on our toes

  1. Hi Richard,
    This in some ways speaks to a dilemma I, and probably yourself and other inclusive education researchers grapple with every day. One one hand there is the argument, based on solid logic, that if we conduct research that refers directly to children with disabilities we only emphasize their difference perpetuate notions of their ‘otherness’. I agree with that argument, but by the same token I am worried that if we sanitize our research of direct reference to disability then what we do is help make these children invisible – just like in the UNESCO report you mention. So, one one hand I would never want to contribute to the oppression of kids with disabilities, but on the other hand I think we need to be realistic about the differences that exist and be pragmatic about it. So, should I do research on teacher attitudes towards disability? One one hand you can argue that just doing the research validates whatever views a teacher might hold. But on a more practical level I want to know what those attitudes are and how they might be improved, especially if they are negative. So, I choose to do the research and make the issues visible, but it must be said not without misgivings and there are certainly people who think I should not do it. Maybe this is why kids with disabilities are more or less invisible in the UNESCO report?

    • Hi Tim,
      Your postings are always thoughtful and thought provoking. The dilemma you identify is one that I am sure is familiar to many of us who have researched in the areas of special and inclusive education. I was once told by a well known disability activist that I had no right to an opinion on disability as I was an able bodied man who had no first hand experience. I understood his perspective but didn’t agree. At the heart of the issue is the motivations that we bring to the table. In India campaigners such as C.F. Andrews and Madeline Slade (known as Mirabehn in India) worked alongside the leaders of the “Quit India” campaign to demand independence for India. They were not Indian nationals – in fact they came from the very country that the independence movement was opposing. They were accepted as allies in the struggle because they were motivated by the fight for justice.
      When it comes to disability I think we need to ensure that we adhere to the slogan “nothing about us without us” and ensure that we research “with” individuals with disabilities, rather than “on” or simply “about”.
      The authors of the UNESCO report face a real dilemma. But like you I have concerns that a sanitization of disability perpetuates the invisibility of vulnerable individuals to the wider world. This is a debate that we must continue to have, but one that we must ensure involves those who themselves live with disability and continue to gain access to all those aspects of day to day living that we take for granted.

  2. Hi Richard! I’m a regular reader of your blogs. I’m pleasantly greeted by your views and thoughts every morning which I think is becoming a requirement to kick start my day.
    I love the ease with which you express yourself so clearly…..keep the blogs going, Richard! I’m sure there are many like me who’re reading silently.

    • Thank you for your kind words Ekta. I am amused to think that I could be competing each morning for your attention with the Hindu, The Deccan Herald or the Times of India! Your comments are always very welcome.

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