Education for All Means All

Education for All Means All

By Judy Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights, U.S. Department of State and Brent C. Elder, Ph.D.,[1] Rowan University

The purpose of this blog series, prepared under the auspices of USAID’s Office of Education, is to address some potential challenges and solutions to increase student literacy rates as they relate to a variety of disabilities in diverse global contexts. This first blog in the series will provide an overview of issues related to disability and literacy around the world. Though not all students with disabilities will require reading interventions to become literate, we encourage you to use these strategies to help support all students to attain literacy, not just students with disabilities.
First and foremost, we would like to thank the Global Reading Network (GRN) and USAID for organizing authors to create this blog series and for recognizing the need for all students to attain literacy, especially students who have been historically unserved and underserved in schools.

With your support and practical application of the strategies presented in future blogs, you can help the GRN support the goal to increase the literacy of 100 million children by 2020.[2] Aside from providing practitioners with usable literacy strategies, we want these blogs to remind readers around the world that we need to push for more proactive steps to ensure that the roughly 90 percent of out-of-school children with disabilities in developing countries[3] gain access to inclusive education and literacy and that we recognize students with disabilities as productive citizens.


Basic literacy rates around the globe have risen significantly; the facts that follow highlight the progress related to global literacy (Fact 1), the need for such literacy work to continue (Fact 2), the international legal instrument that encourages the development of sustainable inclusive education practices (Fact 3) and a guiding inclusive education framework that promotes literacy (Fact 4).

Fact 1: Enrollment in primary education in developing countries has reached 91 per cent, but 57 million children remain out of school (impetus for United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4).[4]

Fact 2: More than 100 million youth (103 million) worldwide lack basic literacy skills (impetus for United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4).

Fact 3: Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) (2006) ensures that ratifying countries provide access to an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning.

Fact 4: Sustainable Development Goal 4 ensures inclusive and quality education for all and promotes lifelong learning.

Even though there is a dearth of disability-related data, we know more than 57 million children are not enrolled in school and roughly 103 million youth are illiterate. Human rights instruments like the UNCRPD and the existence of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals[5] (SDGs) signify positive transnational governmental support of inclusive education.[6] However, the UNCRPD and the SDGs will only become realities when governments and schools routinely collaborate with families to recognize that all children can learn when provided with appropriate modifications and accommodations to the curriculum. While such supports are vital to the realization of SGDs and the goals of the GRN, without specific interventions related to literacy and disability in inclusive settings, this vast number of children, many of whom have disabilities, will remain uneducated and illiterate.


Many factors contribute to illiteracy, especially in countries in the global South. High rates of poverty, inadequate access to nourishing food and limited access to healthcare services are a few examples that can cause disability and impede literacy skill development.[7] Exacerbating these realities is the fact that many learning disabilities may be invisible to parents and teachers, thus underscoring the need for teachers to be adequately trained on how to develop literacy skills for students with disabilities.[8] Foundational to these trainings must be the notion that all students can learn. “Education for All” can be reached if all educators are trained to support the literacy development of children with disabilities and understand that people with disabilities are intelligent and competent individuals who have the same aspirations and goals as people without disabilities.[9]

Aside from presuming competence in students with disabilities, we acknowledge that schools do not exist independently of the larger communities in which they are situated. Schools are microcosms of the communities that surround them. In order to have more inclusive communities, schools must be made accessible to all students regardless of a specific disability label. Creating more inclusive schools, including making schools accessible for students with physical disabilities, means creating equitable access to literacy for all students. This means engaging local stakeholders in inclusive education (e.g., students, parents, community members, teachers, administrators, government officials) in sustained dialogue that results in the identification and mobilization of existing school and community resources that increase the number of students with disabilities accessing literacy opportunities alongside their non-disabled peers.[10] In order to identify effective approaches to literacy for students that value local ways of knowing, such dialogues should: a) be held in local languages, b) incorporate culturally relevant and locally available materials and c) engage families and larger communities in the literacy process.[11]

School-Home Connection

Recognizing the need for students with (and without) disabilities to practice literacy skills learned in school, providing opportunities at home for students to read with family members is critical. Due to the multiple oppressions experienced by families living in poverty,[12] parents may not be literate themselves. This reality underscores the development of school-home partnerships that increase the literacy of the family, not just an individual student. This could mean engaging local educational government entities and NGOs/disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) in conversations about how to provide families access to literacy-based literature published in local languages. It may also require that schools increase efforts to engage with families who may not have the monetary resources to send their children with disabilities to school. What is foundational about fostering these school-home approaches to literacy is engaging in dialogue with families to discover what they believe they need in order to increase the literacy of their families. Connecting such families to other families in similar positions is one way to encourage the formation of grassroots parent movements focused on literacy and inclusive education.

Expanding on the school-home approach to increase literacy, it is similarly critical to engage the community-at-large in literacy-based dialogues. Inviting community members (e.g., church elders, local business owners and government representatives) to such conversations has the potential to expand community-based knowledge on disability and literacy exponentially as these stakeholders engage in similar conversations in their respective communities. The power of a family-based approach is exemplified by a quote from Nathaniel Muthomi, the project officer for Girl Child Network in Kenya: "We've found that the most effective and sustainable way to support children with disabilities is to engage their families in promoting literacy. One way we do this is by teaching sign language to parents of children with hearing impairments. Helping a family sign together is a way to promote a language-rich home environment, which study after study links with growth in reading and writing."

Teacher Training

The importance of home- and community-based engagement in literacy approaches for students with disabilities cannot be overstated; however, teachers clearly play a significant role in the development and implementation of effective literacy practices in their classrooms. Teachers in inclusive classrooms are responsible for providing substantive literacy instruction for all students.[13] This means having a variety of means to assess student literacy levels at their disposal in order to keep students with disabilities in their inclusive classes rather than send them out to literacy specialists or special schools. Following student assessment, teachers must be trained on how to provide appropriate accommodations and modifications to curriculum so that all students (not just students with disabilities) have access to literacy in schools.[14] Such accommodations and modifications can be co-created and sustained by local stakeholders in inclusive education and literacy and funded by government agencies, NGOs and DPOs.
With collective community-based approaches to inclusive literacy practices, the more than 103 million students who do not currently access literacy education can learn to read.[15] Many of these students will require some curricular accommodations and modifications, but many will be able to access academic content alongside their non-disabled peers.[16] For those of you reading this, there is a role you have to play. There needs to be action taken by universities, ministries, schools, teachers, NGOs, DPOs and parent groups, because the reality is that many people do not believe that children with disabilities can learn. Ultimately, governments need to fulfill their obligations to support the literacy development of all children. Failure to do so not only limits the lives of disabled individuals, but also forces them to be reliant on their families and government services.


Below is a list of practical first steps that can help promote the literacy of students with disabilities in inclusive schools.

  1. Presume that all students have the ability to learn.
  2. Engage in dialogue with local stakeholders in education to mobilize existing community resources that can support the development of literacy for all students.
  3. Connect with parents/guardians to learn student strengths and needs related to literacy.
  4. Assess students to learn their strengths and needs related to literacy.
  5. Modify instruction to fit the needs of students.
  6. Connect with local government agencies, NGOs and DPOs regarding funding school-home literacy-based training programs.
  7. Publicly share successes and challenges so others can replicate achievements and avoid difficulties.

For more information on how to promote literacy around the world, please check out the following resources:

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN):
Gallaudet University Visual Language and Visual Learning:
Inclusion International:
National Federation of the Blind:
Society for Disability Studies:
The African Child Policy Forum:
The ARC:
UNICEF Education:
USAID Tusome Early Grade Reading Activity:
World Bank Education:
World Health Organization Education:


Biklen, D., & Burke, J. (2006). Presuming competence. Equity & Excellence in Education, 39(2), 166-175.

   Damiani, M. L., Elder, B. C. & Okongo, T. O. (under review). Tangible first steps: Developing inclusion committees as a strategy to create inclusive schools in western Kenya. Disability and the Global South.

Global Reading Network (2015). About the Global Reading Network. Retrieved from

Grech, S. (2008). Living with disability in rural Guatemala: Exploring connections and impacts on poverty. International Journal of Disability, Community and Rehabilitation, 7(2).

Janney, R., Snell, M. E., & Elliott, J. (2000). Modifying schoolwork. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company.

Owuor, J. A. (2007). Integrating African indigenous knowledge in Kenya’s formal education system: The potential for sustainable development. Journal of Contemporary Issues in Education2(2), 21-37.

Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT) (2014). Retrieved from

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago Press.

United Nations (2012). Realization of the Millennium Development Goals and internationally agreed development goals for persons with disabilities: A disability-inclusive development agenda towards 2015 and beyond. Retrieved from

United Nations. (UNCRPD) (2006). Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. Retrieved from  

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (2014). Global initiative for out-of-school children. Retrieved from

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2011). Fact sheet: Youth with disabilities. Retrieved from

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. (UNSDG) (2015). Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from

World Health Organization (WHO) (2011). WHO world report on disability. Retrieved from

[1] This introductory blog is co-authored due to the complimentary international experiences both authors contribute to the topic.
[2] Global Reading Network, 2015.
[3] UNICEF, 2014.
[4] UNESCO (2011) reports that 98% of children with disabilities in developing countries are currently out of school and that up to 99% of girls with disabilities in such countries are illiterate.
[5] When the SDGs were written, the authors specifically addressed disability due to the omission of disability and disability-related issues in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (United Nations, 2012).
[6] United Nations Sustainable Development Goals [UNSDG], 2015.
[7] World Health Organization [WHO], 2011.
[8] Owuor, 2007.
[9] Biklen & Burke, 2006.
[10] Damiani, Elder & Okongo, under review.
[11]Smith, 1999.
[12] Grech, 2008.
[13] Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation [SWIFT], 2014.
[14] Janney, Snell & Elliott, 2000.
[15] UNSDG, 2015.
[16] Janney, Snell & Elliott, 2000.

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