Forming Alliances in Education, Disability, and Development (BAICE Thematic Forum)

On July 16, 2015, I was lucky enough to find myself in the midst of an enthusiastic group of approximately 40 academics, Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) representatives, and activists who had gathered at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge for the fourth and final (for now!) BAICE Forum on Education, Disability, and Development, entitled Forming Alliances in Disability and Development. The event was part of the Education, Equality and Development (EED) Group Seminars and was co-sponsored by the British Association for International and Comparative Education (BAICE), the University of Birmingham, the Research for Equitable Access and Learning Centre (REAL Centre), and the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.


In the context of development, disability and education has received very little attention until recently. The watershed moment for this topic came in 1994, at the World Conference on Special Needs Education in Spain, when representatives from 92 governments and 25 international organisations met and committed to the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education. According to this statement, learners with special educational needs (which include disabilities) should have access to regular schools which practice child-centred pedagogies that cater to those needs. It states:

Regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminatory attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency and ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system. (Article 2)

While this moment spurred the formation of a number of initiatives, organisations, and networks on inclusive education, special needs, and disability, it has proven difficult to build a robust evidence base that goes beyond the surface level issues and can be used to inform policy and practice, according to one of the Forum facilitators, Dr Nidhi Singal. Further, according to Dr Singal, we have come to vague conclusions that inclusive education is effective and cost-effective for all learners, particularly those with disabilities, but there is very little research about how to do inclusive education.

It was this desire to address the gap in the research, and to promote the use of rigorous research to inform policy and practice to affect real positive change for people with disabilities, that drove Dr Singal and Dr Paul Lynch to launch the BAICE disability seminar series back in 2012. The three seminars held prior to this final BAICE Forum were as follows: Methodological issues in researching disability in the South (November 23, 2012), Ethics and disability research in Southern contexts – Unexplored terrain, unresolved tensions (May 3, 2013), and Education for social justice – Framing an agenda for disability research & action in the Global South (June 6, 2014).

Both Dr Singal and Dr Lynch were pleased to see how much the Forum has grown – from only a few people in attendance at the first seminar to around 40 this year. But now the question is: How do we build on this momentum? It’s one thing to bring disability and education into the development spotlight, but it’s quite another to make sure that (a) it stays there, and (b) that work done on disability and education is meaningful, and has a tangible positive impact on children (and adults) with disabilities.

Setting the context and identifying the gaps

The day began with a presentation by Dr Singal, in which she set the context and highlighted some of the key gaps in the knowledge around disability, education, and development. She pointed out that while a number of global compacts and declarations now either explicitly or implicitly make reference to children with disabilities, including the new Sustainable Development Goals, the World Education Forum 2015, Towards 2030: A new vision for education, and the Education for Development Oslo Summit, if we scope the evidence we should be concerned about several key issues:

  • Access has increased but not equally
  • Participation and learning remain neglected
  • There is a lack of investment in structures and personnel
  • The “how” remains conspicuously absent
  • The upscaling and sustainability of small initiatives is a key challenge
  • There is growing dissatisfaction with the notion of “inclusive education”B


Further, she highlighted several problems with international research on disability, education and development. First, those working on disability issues tend to make the assumption that disability is a homogeneous phenomenon: very little research exists on the heterogeneity of disabilities and subsequently the heterogeneity of educational experiences for those with disabilities. Second, the emphasis thus far has been on disability in primary school settings without much consideration for other levels of education nor for improving transition rates. Third, intersectionality is not really considered in global disability research, even though double disadvantage (of being a girl and disabled, for example) is a widely occurring phenomenon. Fourth, while recently we have seen an increase in the number of studies of teacher and parental attitudes, not much work goes beyond that and considers the building of educator capacity and improving the quality of teaching and learning experiences. Fifth, virtually no research exists on the perspectives of children with disabilities themselves, especially in the Global South. Finally, there is a dearth of research on learning outcomes across different disability groups.

Making educational research count for children with disabilities: Kenya, Malawi & Uganda

Following this comprehensive overview of the current disability and education landscape, Dr Lynch presented on Making educational research count for children with disabilities: Kenya, Malawi & Uganda. In this presentation, he discussed the Reach Forward Initiative, a collaboration between partners in the Global North – the University of Birmingham, the University of Cambridge, and Sightsavers – and the Global South – the Kenya Institute of Special Education (Kenya), Montfort Special Needs College (Malawi), and Kyambogo University (Uganda). According to Dr Lynch, the project represents the partners’ attempts to work collaboratively to build more relevant and rigorous research that truly benefits children with disabilities. Country working groups of up to 8 members (with only 2 academics per group and including end-users of the research) were set up and used Google Drive and Facebook to discuss, critique and apply different research components to local context in “work packages”. The idea was to move beyond superficial situation analysis (which, as Dr Lynch pointed out, is never done in the Global North) to the co-construction of research agendas and to the development of research capacity. Through this project, and with the input of all stakeholders, the following proposals were developed: An examination of the application of teaching and learning strategies by teachers trained in Special Needs Education (SNE) in inclusive primary schools in Kenya (Kenya), An investigation into Early Childhood Development & Education (ECDE) services and provision in one district (Malawi), and Support systems and services for families having children with disabilities (Uganda).

North, South and Nowhere? Power and difference in disability research

After a brief but interesting Q&A session on teacher voice – Who’s going to be listening to this voice? How do you avoid voyeurism? How do you make people feel safe? How do you address feelings of inadequacy? – leading disability researcher, Dr Tom Shakespeare, took to the podium to speak on North, South and Nowhere? Power and difference in disability research. Dr Shakespeare brought the social science concept of othering to bear on the conversation, and considered how we position people with disabilities as the “other” in society and in our research. As someone born with restricted growth and becoming paralysed later on in life, he invited us to consider what being disabled actually means and challenged us to reflect on how we encounter and engage with disability in our work. For Dr Shakespeare, disability is not a dichotomy, it’s a scale, and it’s not static, it’s in a constant state of flux. Consequently, it is very difficult to work on disability and produce research that is meaningful, rigorous and relevant. He identified a number of key principles it would be best to keep in mind when researching disability and education:

  • Fight the urge to simply count numbers of disabled people. Count barriers instead.
  • Work on collecting thick descriptions of the experiences of people with disabilities.
  • Keep in mind intersectionality and remember that often people are reluctant to identify as disabled, or they might have a physical impairment but it may not get in the way of them participating fully in society, etc. (Dr Shakespeare himself discusses how the fact that he is white, male, and went to Cambridge has made certain parts of his life easier than if he’d been born an able-bodied person of colour, or female, etc.)
  • Challenge the automatically low expectations you may have about people with disabilities and avoid maternalistic/paternalistic responses.
  • Look for success stories about people with disabilities and learn from those.
  • Bring empathy into your research with ‘the other’, especially in the majority world – respect their truths, respect their time, respect the data you are ‘given’.
  • Support more researchers with disabilities from the majority world, and be open to more critique from them that may help to shape a truly global agenda for disability and education.


Building research alliances in international development programmes: A perspective of an international NGO

Dr Elena Schmidt delivered a thought-provoking presentation based on work she has been doing with Sightsavers as the Director of Strategic Programme Innovations and Development, Evidence and Research (SPIDER) entitled Building research alliances in international development programmes: a perspective of an international NGO. Sightsavers was established in 1950 with the mission to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote equality of opportunities for people with disabilities. Over the past few years, Sightsavers has invested greatly in strengthening the role of research evidence in their programmes and in strengthening the role of Sightsavers in the global research agenda. This investment has involved a changed approach, which has included the set-up of an internal research team to work with academic partnerships, which is involved in all stages of a research cycle and bridges the role between academia and Sightsavers programmes. There are 9 members in the research team, including 3 epidemiologists, 1 health economist, 1 participatory qualitative researcher, 1 systematic reviews post, and 3 regional posts, who were all recruited based on their academic backgrounds, their pragmatic approach to research and the use of findings, and their complementary skills and ability to work as a team. Dr Schmidt concluded her presentation by highlighting the importance of research evidence and alliances for NGOs, particularly in terms of partnerships with academic institutions. While Sightsavers has seen some success with this initiative over time, she recognises that building a research function within an NGO is a process which takes time and a significant investment of effort and resources.

The future of disability, education & development

At the end of the day, before we broke off into small groups for some much-needed discussion time, Professor Pauline Rose drew together some key reflections from the day and asked us to consider the future of disability and education in development. According to Professor Rose, we are living in an exciting time for disability work – finally, the topic is on both the policy and the research agenda. However, this is not the time to sit back and count our achievements. It is a time for action. We need to move beyond talking about numbers, attitudes, and compacts to focusing on how we can make inclusive education happen for everybody, particularly children with disabilities. I, for one, hope that the BAICE Forum on Disability and Education can continue in one form or another, as I think it provides an important space for those of us who are eager to move forward with this agenda.

By Stephanie Bengtsson – HEART Research Officer and Conjoint Lecturer at the University of Newcastle Australia




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