Ensuring inclusive education for persons with disabilities: what can we learn from the pandemic?
Guest blog from Ekaterine Skhiladze, Deputy Public Defender of Georgia and Chair of ENNHRI’s CRPD Working Group
Today we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which aims to promote their rights and well-being. However, in the two years since COVID-19 entered our lives, the ability of persons with disabilities to fulfil some of their most basic rights has been hit hard. One of those is the right to education.
The theme of this year’s day is “Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world”. However, since the onset of the pandemic, most states have failed to meet their obligations to protect their rights and meaningfully engage with them in the decision-making process. Both are required under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD).
When COVID-19 first appeared, much attention was paid to ensuring that persons with disabilities could access healthcare and other essential services. However, it soon became clear that the pandemic impacts on far more of their fundamental rights.
The challenges posed by the pandemic
The pandemic has deepened existing inequalities and made it even harder for persons with disabilities to access quality and inclusive education. This results in higher rates of social exclusion and poverty, hinders their right to employment, and reduces their economic independence.
Furthermore, the shift from learning in a physical space to distance learning has posed numerous challenges to delivering quality education for persons with disabilities. Some of the major obstacles have included:
A lack of targeted policy for children with special educational needs when moving to distance learning.
Insufficient access to reliable internet and necessary equipment, particularly for children in difficult economic circumstances and living in rural areas.
A lack of appropriate distance learning tools, particularly for children with sensory and psycho-social disabilities.
A lack of flexibility in and accessibility to online platforms used for educational purposes.
Almost no or insufficient consultation and participation of students with disabilities, their parents or representative organisations when making major decisions on educational provision.
NHRIs’ work on inclusive education during the pandemic
This challenging situation has been reported by NHRIs across Europe. They have engaged extensively on the topic since the pandemic began, for instance via ENNHRI’s CRPD Working Group. Members exchanged on national practices and challenges that revealed how – even in COVID-19’s early stages – children with disabilities were left behind in many countries’ educational systems.
Given the issue’s continued importance, ENNHRI and the Office of Public Defender of Georgia (Georgian NHRI) organised a webinar in November 2021. This was attended by members of ENNHRI’s CRPD Working Group and other European and international stakeholders.
Along with hearing from individual NHRIs on the situations they face, participants also talked about the role of NHRIs and civil society in advocating for inclusive education, and the importance of standards set out in Article 24 of the UN CRPD.
So, how do we go about creating inclusive educational systems in the digital age?
Providing quality, inclusive education for persons with disabilities
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is one of the most powerful tools NHRIs and other stakeholders can use to drive the shift towards educational inclusivity. It is the first human rights treaty of the twenty-first century that addresses accessibility of information and communications technologies (ICT). As noted in General Comment No. 2 of the UN CRPD Committee, information technology for persons with disabilities is important to ensure that they can access information, whilst also aiding for socialisation and inclusion.
The Renewed Digital Education Action Plan for Europe 2021-2027 also looks at providing access to education for students with disabilities. It is crucial that the Plan’s implementation takes into account requirements within the UN CRPD.
Drawing on such treaties and plans can help ensure that when remote learning is introduced, it is accompanied by measures that fulfil the individual needs of students with disabilities. During the pandemic, some countries have adopted legislative changes, policies, and guidelines to improve the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Other countries need to follow suit and implement these or similar good practices.
The continuing digitalisation of education must go hand in hand with the needs of students with disabilities: this process should break down barriers, not increase them.
NHRIs have a unique role to play in helping it do so. They will continue to monitor the protection of the right to education for persons with disabilities. At the same time, they will advise responsible national authorities to implement the necessary changes in legislation, policy and practice.
In 2022, ENNHRI’s CRPD Working Group will continue to hold regular meetings and plans to conduct regional research on the right to education of persons with disabilities. We hope that the report will help with the realisation of the right to education across Europe.