A visually impaired Palestinian girl reads a Braille version of the Koran during a lesson on memorizing the Koran in Gaza City.
A visually impaired Palestinian girl reads a Braille version of the Koran during a lesson on memorizing the Koran in Gaza City, July 12, 2012.
Suhaib Salem / Courtesy Reuters

Sefakor Komabu-Pomeyie remembers having to crawl on the ground to enter her school in Ghana because there were no ramps for disabled students. At times, she even had to urinate on the floor; it was just too difficult to make it to the bathroom. Sefakor’s parents understood that their polio-stricken daughter would be out on the streets begging if she didn’t get an education, though, so they pushed her to stay in school. And she did. Today she is a graduate student and Ford Fellow at the School for International Training (SIT) Graduate Institute in Vermont. She also advocates for disability rights, particularly for those held back from education by lack of physical access.

Disability is a national and global issue, and it is time for a comprehensive approach that includes education and development. The numbers are staggering: About 19 percent of the U.S. population -- 56 million Americans -- has a physical or cognitive disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That makes it one of the country’s largest minority groups. Worldwide, the figure is 15 percent -- over a billion people -- according to the World Health Organization and the World Bank’s latest statistics.

Every year, the United Nations holds an International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme this past year was “Break barriers, open doors: for an inclusive society for all.” But that sentiment needs to be echoed every day, not just once a year, if the world is to prevent persons with disabilities from being marginalized or excluded.

For any child with disabilities in any part of the world, the first challenge is often the first step -- literally making it inside a school building without a ramp. From there, the road gets harder. Young people with disabilities everywhere need physical therapy, special equipment and housing, and transportation accommodations. They also need information about new best practices and technologies, from deaf education to community services for those with visual disabilities.

To improve access to all those things, the international education sector should prioritize information sharing about mobility training, exchange programs, and professional development projects for those with disabilities. And in the development arena, every new project proposal should include a specific section on how those with disabilities can access or benefit from the funding.  That way, donors will have to spend at least some time thinking through the needs of persons with disabilities. That cannot be an afterthought as it has been so often in the past. The many organizations, foundations, governments, and universities working on the growing issue of advancing disability rights for students should also do more to coordinate their programs.

There are some success stories. In Algeria, new programs such as PEACE -- promoting education, altruism, and civic engagement -- have started to connect university counseling offices to local civil society organizations to assist all Algerian youth, including those with physical disabilities. Jordanian universities have begun similar programs. In Burma, World Learning, an education nonprofit with which we are affiliated, is recruiting young people with disabilities for training in building civil society and teaching English. Recently, the U.S. State Department sponsored a conference for leaders on disability rights from Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Tajikistan, and Uganda. Representatives from many NGOs, universities, and governments also attended to start addressing the challenges of young persons with disabilities.

Even in parts of the world with major development challenges, there has been progress when it comes to children and disabilities. During the Special Olympics earlier this month, Malawi’s president, Joyce Banda, announced an unprecedented African Leaders Forum on Disabilities. Mexico is tackling the issue of inclusive education in some of the poorest parts of the country. And India is making headway on the use of assistive technologies -- everything from improved wheelchairs to high-tech computing devices that increase access to education and transportation for those with disabilities.

One model that seems to have worked well is the use of sports, as in the Special Olympics, to reduce the stigma for young people with disabilities and to create public awareness via athletes and celebrities. Like all movements, the disability rights movement needs cheerleaders, activists, and momentum. To take it to scale, though, will require more than that. It will require a sustained global campaign. As UNICEF has identified, the greatest need, for now, is more data -- particularly on children with disabilities. Reliable and comparable country data is critical for guiding planning and resource allocation.

In the end, all that will boil down to time, money, and energy -- just like the energy that Sefakor’s mom expended on carrying her grown daughter to school each day -- encouraging her to take the next stop on her road to education.

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  • DON STEINBERG is the President and CEO of World Learning and former Deputy Administrator of USAID. TARA SONENSHINE advises World Learning and is currently a Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University.
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