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Special Educational Needs And Disability: The Journey Towards Inclusion

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Tuesday, March 15th, 2016
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For any person with a disability, receiving the appropriate education as early as possible is critical. To this effect, the person’s learning difficulty has to be ascertained through assessment sooner rather than later. The assessment results should inform the educational provision which, monitored and adjusted over time, should lead to some improvement in the person’s learning difficulty. However what happens when the person with disability is considered uneducable or forced into isolation from the rest of society?. The answer is that their likelihood of contributing to their community, society or even to their own lives becomes disabled. This is exactly the definition of persons with disability: “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various attitudinal and environmental barriers, hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”. Inclusion is an approach used to counter these various attitudinal and environmental barriers in all progressive societies. Whereas some persons with disabilities will benefit from a largely specialised and customised environment, a large proportion benefit from integration with the mainstream population for leisurely, academic or a combination of both from a very early age onwards.

This article compares two nations in their journeys towards inclusion; one nation which could be considered advanced along the path such as the United Kingdom and another which could be considered as being in the earlier stages such as Nigeria. The starting point of the journey is that persons with disabilities are uneducable.

United Kingdom


This concept of ‘impairments’ in the definition above, as the cause of learning difficulties only emerged in England and Wales in the last 25 years under the ‘social model of disability’ reshaping the earlier traditional definitions of disability. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, persons in England and Wales, who were considered to be handicapped were largely isolated in workhouses and asylums with little or no government accountability. There were only a handful of private charity and religious institutions which were aimed at “supporting the blind”. In 1918, government legislation provided for the compulsory education of children who had “physical handicap” and “epilepsy”.


Twenty three years would pass before the England and Wales 1944 Education Act further established eleven categories of “handicap” and a limited recognition that mainstream schooling might offer some benefits. A few special schools were set up to cater for ‘feeble-minded’ children, considered to have sufficient ability to benefit from an education (Pritchard, 1963). The first of several schools for pupils with cerebral palsy (‘spastics’) opened in London in 1947 and Edinburgh in 1948 following the enactment of the 1947 Education Act which promulgated the establishment of special schools for children who were considered not suitable for mainstream school. It still took many years before pupils with disabilities were recognised as individuals who were entitled to a dignified education of their own.  It would be another twenty-three years before The 1970 Education Act declared that no child was uneducable and the rights of children with disabilities to an education was formally acknowledged with resource allocations to perpetuate the spread of policy and practice in schools. However there were still widespread discriminatory practices within schools and society at large. It was one thing for the law to say a school must admit a child with special needs, but the child was very much at risk of not being taught, being isolated or at worse be seriously harmed. These scenarios led to a number of new legislations over the next 35 years promulgating various practices such as the replacement of words like ‘handicapped’ with ‘special educational need’, introduction of disability discrimination laws such that a child with special needs in a mainstream school could not be excluded from a school trip that the rest of his/her classmates were attending. The law made it mandatory for local authorities to carry out assessments of the needs of a child based on a parent’s concern that their child had special needs. The commitment of government to the journey towards inclusion cut across political party lines and mandates, although the movement gained momentum in 1991 when the UK adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 23 which states that “the disabled child should have effective access to and receive education which encourages the fullest possible social integration and individual development”

In 2015, the UK published the Special Educational Needs and Disability bill which makes education, health and social care provision for children and young adults with special needs and disabilities from 0 to 25 years old. This is to ensure the longer term provision for pupils beyond the age of 19, which is the age that the previous 1996 educational legislation covered. Over many long years, laws have been put in place and revised to clarify and monitor the roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders in the educational and wider societal system. However, the existence of laws in and of themselves are not sufficient to ensure and sustain inclusion. Pupils with special needs are still at risk of refused admissions, inadequate provision, inappropriate teaching, discrimination, bullying, exclusions etc. The adherence to the law is only brought about by the vigilance of the parents, inspectorate commissions, advocacy groups and accessible Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of government who use the instruments of the existing legislation and policies to maintain best practice. Parents remain eligible to claim compensations from institutions who default on the law. The provider institutions and local authorities are also liable to strict sanctions from the regional and national government agencies if they are deemed to have defaulted on legislation.

According to the 2011 census, the total population of the United Kingdom was around 63 million with over 11 million people with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability. The most commonly-reported impairments are those that affect mobility, lifting or carrying. The prevalence of disability rises with age such that the elderly persons have the largest proportion of persons with disability. A substantially higher proportion of individuals who live in families with disabled members live in poverty, compared to individuals who live in families where no one is disabled.



Nigeria has a total population of 167 million according to the 2011 Nigerian National Population Commission census. There are 22 million persons with disabilities, more than 80% of which live in rural areas, in poverty. 15 in every 100 Nigerian women have a disability according to a recent Health Reform Foundation of Nigeria conference.  The journey towards inclusion in Nigeria commenced about 50 years ago. There are a plethora of special schools run by government, charities, religious institutions and private individuals with various degrees of practice and provisions. Some special schools such as the religious schools for the blind have existed since the 1960’s. Several government-run special schools have existed since the 70’s. Some States like Osun State have up to 10 special schools catering to all nationally agreed impairments.

There are legal frameworks in place such as the African Charter of Human Rights Act 1983 and Sections 33 – 44 (Rights) of Nigerian Constitution 1999. On 30th March 2007 Nigeria signed the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ratified its optional protocol on 24th September 2010. There is an established National Human Rights Commission and a Department of Rehabilitation based within the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. There are also a number of national policies published under the umbrella of the Federal Ministry of Education, for instance the Multi Stage Multiple Criteria System for Identification of Gifted Children and Youths in Nigeria (2009), Training Manual on Adaptation and Implementation of Inclusive Education in Nigeria (2010), National Policy on Albinism and Guidelines for Implementation in Nigeria (2012), National Policy and Implementation Guidelines on Special Needs Education in Nigeria (2015) and most recently the draft National Policy on Inclusive Education in Nigeria (February 2016), which aims to address all groups at risk of exclusion, not just persons with disabilities.

There are guidelines and frameworks which have undoubtedly been challenging to implement and utilise for sustainable outcomes. Some of these challenges include poor funding, wide disparity between expected and actual enrolment, inadequate and inaccurate data, poverty, inadequate infrastructure, distance of schools from homes, teacher factor, gender disparity, urban-rural dichotomy, social and religious myths, early marriage, poverty and aversion for western education by some communities amongst others. Specifically, the Special Educational Needs Teaching System needs a comprehensive review from identification, assessment, teaching, measurement and monitoring of progress to outcomes definition.

In order to address these challenges, in 2007, The Association for Comprehensive Empowerment of Nigerians with Disabilities (ASCEND), in collaboration with Mobility Aid and Appliances Research and Development Centre (MAARDEC) and other organisations of people affected by disabilities, presented a bill to protect the rights of people with disabilities to the National Assembly. The bill was for an “Act to ensure full integration of persons with disabilities into the society and establish a National Commission for persons with disabilities and vest it with the responsibility for their Education, Healthcare, and Civil Rights”. Despite incessant lobbying, the Act is yet to be enacted in law, although it has gone through a number of readings in both Houses of Assemblies.

In conclusion, evidently there is the understanding of the gradual transition in the journey towards inclusion in the United Kingdom. The country had established a relatively stable mainstream foundation, and leadership in government and lobby groups steered the inclusion of persons with disabilities gradually over a long period of time. The entire system is a collaborative effort between government, legislators, policy makers, civil service, lobby groups, advocates, corporate and charitable sponsors, professional bodies, educational institutions and the community at large. On the other hand, Nigeria still has substantial challenges catering for mainstream society, including financial, socio-economic, infrastructural, ICT and attitudinal challenges which though significant are not insurmountable. There are several willing, financial, technical, national, multinational and international collaborators interested in working with the government. For example the multinational mobile telecoms company MTN Foundation recently announced that it had invested over U$56million in the provision of education, health facilities and economic empowerment of persons with disabilities in Nigeria, as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility.

This movement towards inclusion of persons with disabilities into society ultimately requires committed and visionary leadership in a range of sectors steering this inevitable journey towards a more dynamic society with broader social development and greater social cohesion. There are costs to stalling the journey such as further human rights violations, loss of productivity estimated at 3-7% GDP loss, lower tax returns, limited consumption capacity, wasted human resources and an increasingly higher public expenditure on social care, assistance and rehabilitation. The degree to which persons with disabilities can contribute to the development of any nation is dependent on the degree of their inclusion into every fabric of the society.

Bola Abimbola (MBA MBPsS) is a Policy Development Consultant, International Project Manager, Politician, Life Coach, Counsellor, Advocate for women, children and persons with disabilities and Founder of ERADA, UK. She is a Foundation Board Member Beyond The Book Foundation Nigeria. She can be reached at

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