Do children with disabilities attend school? New findings from Sierra Leone

9 May, 2019 By Suguru Mizunoya, Claudia Cappa, Diogo Amaro, Cecilia Silva Venturini (design)

As access to education increases around the world, so does the concern about schools providing the necessary support to children with disabilities. Oftentimes unaccommodating environments for students with functional difficulties prevent them from making the most of their educations.  A new questionnaire —  the Child Functioning Module  — included as part of the UNICEF-supported Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), shows whether children with functional difficulties across 12 domains of development are able to attend schools. Sierra Leone was one of the first countries where the Child Functioning Module was administered, generating new insights.

How do disabilities emerge?

For children with functional difficulties to succeed in school, learning environments should accommodate their needs. An accommodating environment may include an accessible school setting, the provision of necessary equipment such as glasses, hearing aids or learning materials in braille in addition to well-prepared teaching staff. Such inclusive environments are key to integrating children with functional difficulties in school and ensuring that their right to an education is fulfilled. On the other hand, unaccommodating environments prevent these children from being able to enjoy the same opportunities as others. Unaccommodating environments lessen the chances that children with functional difficulties have to getting an education and inhibit participation in the learning experience.

In such environments, parents may be reluctant to send children with functional difficulties to school, worried that the resources are not in place to support learning. Some parents may also make this decision out of fear that their children would be bullied or socially excluded.

A new lens

In many countries data on these disadvantaged children and how they participate in school often lack quality and comparability. To address this gap, UNICEF, in collaboration with the Washington Group on Disability Statistics (WG), has developed a new questionnaire on children with disabilities to be administered in household surveys. The new module collects data for children aged 5 to 17 on 12 functional domains.

Findings from Sierra Leone

A MICS survey from Sierra Leone revealed that about 23 per cent of children aged 5 to 17 have at least one functional difficulty. However, prevalence varies widely across functional domains. Based on information from their mothers or primary caregivers, around 13 per cent of children display signs of severe anxiety and around 9 per cent are very sad or depressed on a daily basis. In contrast, only 0.2 per cent of children in Sierra Leone have difficulties seeing or hearing due to the lack of appropriate equipment or because glasses and hearing aids are not effectively addressing their needs (Figure 3).

The findings further demonstrate that many children with functional difficulties are attending school in Sierra Leone (Figure 4). For example, children with functional difficulties in managing emotions attend schools at similar rates as those without functional difficulties. In contrast, the conventional view that children with disabilities are more likely to be out of school still holds for other functional domains. For example, the survey found that children with hearing or seeing difficulties had the lowest school attendance rates, 50 and 60 per cent respectively.

The bridge to inclusive learning

The results indicate that some traditional ideas about children with disabilities don’t always prove to be true. On the one hand, most children with disabilities are already in school, but ways to meet their unique needs and efficiently educate them need to be put in place or they need to improve. On the other hand, children with certain difficulties, for example hearing or seeing, continue to be left out and they have problems accessing an education. This indicates a need to further invest in accommodating environments to fulfil the needs of all children in the classroom, as well as to develop more inclusive education policies to help all children enter and remain in the school environment.

The Child Functioning Module provides important insights into a critical component affecting a child’s right to an education. Armed with the data this new tool produces, policymakers will be better equipped to promote inclusive learning environments in schools that reach each and every child.

Learn more about the Child Functioning Module.

This is the second blog in a series about newly released data on education. The first blog post of the series investigates learning in school and can be accessed here.