Beyond Access: The Need to Focus on Improving Literacy Skills for Students with Disabilities

By Anne Hayes, International Inclusive Education Consultant

The Importance of Literacy Skills for All

Literacy skills are a fundamental component of most daily living skills. Literacy skills are needed to break out of the poverty cycle, to access health services, and gain employment. Literacy skills for children with disabilities can also help support future independent living and improve the ability to be self-advocates and enable self-determination. However, most international education programs that focus on early grade reading do not or only minimally address the needs of students with different types of disabilities.

Access to education for students with disabilities continues to be a challenge in most low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs) with estimates as high as 85 percent of school-aged children with disabilities being out of school. For those students who are lucky to enroll in school, teachers are often poorly prepared and lack the skills to enable all students in their classroom (including those with disabilities) to obtain literacy skills. As a result, there are high drop out and illiteracy rates for students with disabilities worldwide.

USAID Toolkit to Promote Literacy Skills for Students with Disabilities

To help promote literacy skills for all students, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the Reading within Reach (REACH) managed by the University Research Company (URC) project developed a Toolkit to Promote Literacy Skills for Students with Disabilities. This toolkit provides information on the holistic supports needed to support students with disabilities (e.g., trained teachers, reasonable accommodations, accessible learning materials, etc.) as well as different technical approaches for different types of students with disabilities using the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The toolkit also provides practical suggestions for USAID Education Officers, NGOs working in the area of education and disability inclusion and government officials on how these theoretical approaches can be adapted and applied in practice in LMICs.

I have the privilege of being the main author of the toolkit along with Ann Turnbull and Norma Moran. The toolkit was developed in a highly participatory way to gain insights and examples of effective programming from a variety of stakeholders. Initially, questions related to literacy and students with disabilities were distributed through the Global Reading Network’s Community of Practice which includes more than 700 individuals working in the field of international education. Likewise, a series of interviews with experts in the field of literacy and/or inclusive education were conducted as well as a comprehensive desk review of more than 500 articles, documents, reports, and books. On May 1, 2018, an Experts Meeting on Literacy and Learning took place that was supported by USAID and the World Bank. A review committee was also established with representatives from disabled persons organizations (DPOs) different technical experts (such as Brent Elder from Tangata Group) and practitioners working in the area of inclusive education or international education.

The toolkit will be released at an opportune time as the international disability community is beginning to shift its discussions from not only talking about “why” and “where” students with disabilities should receive an education but is beginning to think through the importance of “how” to educate all students with disabilities.

Reflections as a Mother of a Student with Disabilities

My son, Jack and I

My son, Jack and I

This toolkit has personal relevance for me as well as a mother of a young son with complex support needs and complex communication needs. My son, Jack, currently only has a handful of functional words and relies on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices to communicate. Through the support of an amazing team of teachers, therapists, and paraprofessionals, Jack is learning to read, communicate and actively participate in an inclusive education classroom setting. While working in the field of international inclusive education, I am constantly reminded that children with similar disabilities worldwide often do not have the same opportunities as my son.

I remember being told once by an “education expert” in a Sub-Saharan African country that students who cannot talk, cannot learn and thus are only taught colors and allowed to do crafts. Students like my son in this country are never provided the opportunity to learn the literacy skills that are needed for independent living and employment in the future. I remember thinking about how both my son’s and my family’s life would have been impacted if my son was never allowed the opportunity to attend school and learn. Without literacy skills, my son would be less independent, have fewer opportunities for self-advocacy and self-determination, and be less likely to obtain a job one day. It is highly likely that either my husband or I would have to quit our job to help with my son’s care which would impact our family’s socio-economic status as we would only have one income. Providing students with disabilities the opportunity to learn literacy skills undoubtedly has a ripple effect on families and the community as a whole. While the future holds no certainties, I know that my son will have a better and fuller life with the acquisition of literacy skills.

Research proves that students with disabilities can obtain literacy skills. This includes students with higher support needs who are often denied the chance to learn due to teachers and other influencing adults’ misperceptions on capacity. Students with disabilities also have the capacity to be lifelong learners. It is important that the international disability, education and donor community promote and implement programs that address literacy skills for all students. Hopefully, the toolkit will serve as a constructive tool to help promote literacy skills worldwide and enable students with disabilities to reach their full potential.

The Toolkit to Promote Literacy Skills for Students with Disabilities will be released in July/August 2018 with a subsequent webinar on how to use the toolkit in LMIC settings.