Last week, Rwanda joined the rest of the world to celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), annually observed on December 3 to promote the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities, and to take action for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of society and development. According to Emmanuel Ndayisaba, Executive Secretary of National Council of Persons with Disabilities (NCPD), the day was celebrated under the theme ‘Let’s promote health services and fight against pandemics for persons with disabilities’. The 2020 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Education Monitoring Report findings on children with disabilities indicates that children and youth with disabilities are considered among the most marginalised, excluded people in the world, and are 2.5 times more likely to never attend school in their lifetimes than children without disabilities. And that the global pandemic has made things worse. During its first peak, 1.6 billion children were out of school, including almost 50 per cent of children with disabilities. The report also found that about 40 per cent of low-and-middle-income countries are not supporting the most disadvantaged learners during this pandemic, including those with disabilities. Meanwhile, there are 258 million children, youth and adolescents that are left out of school globally, with high numbers observed still in sub-Saharan Africa. Second, millions more are alienated and discriminated against within classrooms. These are at disadvantage for different reasons including gender, ethnicity, location, disabilities, and income/wealth levels. For instance children, adolescents and youth with disabilities accounted for 12 per cent of the in-school population, but 15 per cent of the out-of-school population, according to the report. What are the effects? According to experts, more consideration needs to be given right now to ensure the marginalised do not lag even farther behind given that 40 per cent of countries have not addressed the needs of the most disadvantaged. Low-and-middle-income countries are at a far more disadvantaged starting point for an effective transition to online learning platforms. Anna Cristina D’ Addio, a senior policy analyst for the Global Education Monitoring Report (UNESCO), says learners with disabilities are at higher risk of exclusion in such circumstances. For instance, she points out that many resources are not accessible for blind or deaf students even if the technology exists. Children with mild learning difficulties, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, may struggle with independent work in front of a computer. Apart from technology and learning, D’ Addio notes that the loss of daily school routine adds a layer of difficulty for learners who are sensitive to change, such as those with autism spectrum disorders. Schools had to scale back or suspend support to reduce infection risks. Teachers are struggling to provide the reassurance that only personal contact can offer. Challenges and way forward In Rwanda, last year, the cabinet approved the new policy on inclusive education in special education and the implementation plan. However, Ndayisaba says there is a need to accelerate its implementation. The recommendations of the Global Education Monitoring Report 2020 recommends that countries should widen the understanding on inclusive education. Inclusive learning, even online, D’ Addio says, means that it should be for all and not just for some. If remote learning was designed for all learners, including learners with disabilities, this would be a huge step ahead. In Africa, 25 countries are using radio, 26 countries are using television, and others are using recorded materials. However, these strategies do not work for many learners with disabilities. Rwanda is among the countries that are setting up more inclusive strategies for learners with disabilities. The information from IEI (inclusive education initiative) by the World Bank shows, for instance, that Rwanda has started to integrate the principle of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a way of thinking about teaching and learning that helps give all students an equal opportunity to succeed, in remote learning. This means that it ensures accessibility of digital readers, and sign language interpretation learning materials in Braille are available. Also, the Ministry of Education and the Rwanda Education Board (REB) managed to set up a remote learning programme to reach more than three million students, mainly using television and radio. The priority was also to support the most marginalised, including those with learning difficulties and vulnerable students. To be able to reach as many as possible, different measures have been taken to prepare and disseminate information and education materials. For instance, REB is distributing (solar powered) radios to the most marginalised households with the support of Save the Children; the education board with various support is trying to ensure sign language interpretation is available for lessons delivered by TV, and radio scripts have been translated to braille.