Maali Jamil

Rebuilding an Inclusive Education System for Children with Disabilities


March 2023

The ongoing conflict in Yemen has disrupted every facet of life for Yemenis. The education sector has suffered greatly because of a lack of resources and funding, the militarization of schools, the destruction and misuse of school buildings, non-payment of teacher salaries, the inability of cities and towns to absorb large numbers of Internally Displaced Peoples, and the physical, emotional, and social barriers that prevent children from accessing schools if and when available. UNICEF estimates that 10.6 million school-age boys and girls have been affected.1 It also estimates that almost 3,000 schools were destroyed or used for other purposes, and two-thirds of teachers dropped out due to their salaries not being paid. COVID-19 has also further disrupted access to schools.2 In October 2022, the International Committee of the Red Cross voiced its concern about the dire state of education in Yemen and highlighted that further budget cuts will put even more children at risk.3 Whilst programs continue to run throughout the fragmented country with varying degrees of success, it is clear that almost eight years of conflict has devastated an already weak education system. Education in a fragile context like Yemen poses a diverse set of challenges, with international and local actors having to constantly change strategies or cope with the violent and volatile conditions on the ground which can have multiple outcomes, from temporary disruption of service delivery to complete inaccessibility of services.

One important issue that sits at the intersection of educational collapse and protracted conflict is the increase in number of children with physical disabilities and trauma due to the war and the increase in children whose mental and physical disabilities have worsened or stagnated because of a lack of early interventions. International and local organizations have either dedicated entire reports to the challenges people with disabilities face or discussed them within a broader discussion of war-related difficulties and injustices. The findings in these reports depict the multiple layers of injustice and exclusion children with disabilities face. The impact of war on the disruption of education and especially on children with disabilities has been established in Yemen and will be discussed in this debrief. However, the debrief highlights a particular dimension of education in Yemen’s war-torn context: invisible disabilities and learning difficulties and the importance of foundational inclusion in post-conflict reconstruction. Invisible disabilities, such as autism, and learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, can go unnoticed, be misdiagnosed, or be ignored due to a lack of awareness, a lack of early detection mechanisms, and/or negative societal perceptions.

While the six-month truce that started in April 2022 sparked hopes that much-needed dialogue regarding peace and the transitional period might not be too far away, it ended with the failure to renew the truce in October 2022. Even though the truce was flawed in many ways, a post-conflict Yemen was closer than it had been since 2015. Post-conflict reconstruction provides a unique opportunity to reevaluate practices, and set peace-centered foundations to promote peace, sustainability, and inclusivity. A post-conflict Yemen will need to address the trauma, challenges, and social stigmas around mental health and disabilities in education, especially disabilities that are rarely culturally or institutionally acknowledged. Embedding inclusivity in Yemen’s education system, which can yield positive short- and long-term educational and societal results, should be at the core of a post-conflict educational policy for a sustainable and equitable peace.

There is plenty of literature on education in conflict settings and on the challenges of rebuilding the education system to address the educational and social needs of children during the post-conflict phase. Drawing on literature and interviews with professionals and parents, several recurring themes and interconnected challenges were identified and must be taken into account in Yemen’s post-conflict education reforms. These challenges include diagnosing needs, the lack of support, discrimination, and the lack of accurate data to reflect the rise in cases.

Past Government Disability and Education Strategies

The following definition was outlined in 2008 by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”(Art.1).4

In line with this convention, Yemen’s National Disability Strategy (2014-2018) was adopted to promote a rights-based approach to disability.5 Education for children with disabilities (CWD) was one of the nine main sectors analyzed in the strategy.6 However, implementation and service delivery after 2015 became increasingly difficult because of the escalation of violence and state fragmentation.7

A 2020 UNICEF report provides an extensive and detailed analysis of the challenges faced by CWDs in Yemen, while also stressing that data on disability is limited and often unreliable. In 2013, it was estimated that three per cent of Yemeni children have some sort of disability.6 Now, the actual number of children with different forms of disabilities is expected to be much higher because of the conflict and the deterioration of the health infrastructure. Some of the causes of disabilities and psychological trauma are limited healthcare and nutrition, violence-related injuries, contagious diseases, and physical and psychological abuse. The report also highlights various educational polices from 2000-2015 that were created to raise awareness, promote equality in education, ensure CWDs access to education, provide vocational training, and improve the quality of education.8 However, UNICEF notes that there were almost no mechanisms for implementation nor monitoring of the various strategies.6

“Inclusive education in Yemen that also included plans for children with learning difficulties was slowly beginning to take shape before the war”, according to Manal AlAshwal, a deaf Yemeni educator and disability rights activist. “The programs that started in Yemen were stopped because of the war and restarting them means additional resources must be allocated to reestablish these programs. We cannot pick up where we left off because of the destruction of schools which include inclusive schools with resource rooms to educate children with disabilities and learning difficulties, qualified teachers who were forced to flee, were injured or were killed, and the repurposing of schools for military purposes.” New plans have to factor in how to address the increasing number of children with disabilities and allocating resources to accommodate them.

The Global Partnership for Education’s Yemen Transitional Education Plan (TEP) 2019/20-2021/22,9 created with the Ministry of Education, provides a robust three-year education plan that is meant to address immediate needs and support preparation for a long-term education sector plan. As part of the four-part strategy, CWDs needs are expressed through the following:

  • Strategy 2.2: which seeks to train teachers to be able to integrate CWDs in classroom environments,
  • Strategy 3.1: which seeks to identify and rehabilitate schools including addressing accessibilities for CWDs, and
  • Strategy 3.3: which seeks to increase the numbers of schools that receive learning resources for CWDs.

The inclusion of CWDs in this plan is crucial and promising, especially in strategy 3.3 which highlights that a database will be created to identify CWDs needs in schools. However, keeping in mind that this TEP is a short-term plan which focuses on immediate needs, more engagement with the different kinds of disabilities and difficulties, children’s needs, and the barriers that exist between children and educational attainment is important. For example, there must be an early detection plan for children with learning difficulties or autism. Issues related to invisible disabilities and difficulties usually take longer to diagnose and are often overlooked in inclusive education.10 Saba Alsakkaf, a speech therapist and founder of the Idrak Center for Speech Therapy and Learning Difficulties, states that during her visits to schools or when accepting new patients, she sees the effects of late interventions in children’s ability to perform in school or form certain sounds. She believes early detection and simple interventions could have greatly improved their conditions.

The kind of integration in schools also differs based on the type of disability according to Kawkab al-Hibshi, Deputy Head of the Health and Social Protection Unit at the Social Fund for Development (SFD) and a disability expert in Yemen. The Ministry of Education with support from SFD, a government organization, has integrated inclusive education in 400 public schools. For example, in these schools, according to al-Hibshi, blind children are more likely to be fully integrated in classrooms even though there is a lack of resources to address braille needs. Deaf children are only partially integrated in classrooms because training educators in sign language, modifying curriculums, and updating teaching methods are lengthy and costly undertakings. For children who are deaf or are autistic, partial integration might include students participating in sports classes, breaks or general assemblies, whilst receiving more specialized lessons in a separate area.

However, most of the schools and the non-governmental organizations (NGO) that provide services for CWDs are in urban areas, which leaves over 70 per cent of the population without access to these integrated schools and services according to al-Hibshi. To reach rural communities, the SFD uses community-based rehabilitation. This approach is designed to work within local communities, to provide training and support to people and medical centers depending on needs assessments and the available community resources.

In Sanaa, Alsakkaf discussed the increasing awareness in private schools of the need for shadow teachers, specialists who attend classes with CWDs. However, she explained that since this field does not exist in Yemen, the shadow teacher might just be a recent high school graduate who provides care for the child while at school. Dealing with children who have autism or downs syndrome requires training and expertise for their treatment plan to be effective. Providing individual non-specialized care might help the class teacher in some ways but will not provide the child with the pedagogical attention needed in order for them to benefit academically or socially. While there is a limited effort to ensure children are being integrated into classrooms, the lack of training, resources, and inclusive curriculum remains a major hindrance.

Improve early diagnoses and increase support to children with disabilities

A late diagnosis of mental or learning difficulties academically disadvantages children, which can have long-term academic consequences.11 Educators generally neither have the knowledge nor support to recognize early signs, which often go unnoticed until around the age of ten.12 If a diagnosis is provided when the child is older, the child would have already missed out on critical early interventions. Local organizations that work with disabled children do have methods for early detection; however, it is parents and educators who spend the most time with children and need to be able to understand early signs in order to seek help from organizations or centers. Educators, local NGO workers, and the ministry employee interviewed for this research shared their frustration with how their advice is received by parents. There is often denial and heavy pushback from parents who either believe the educator or specialist is not qualified, or that the child is hyperactive or lazy and needs more discipline or a firmer approach. This signals a lack of awareness and a lack of trust by the parents in the school or center. It can also stem from the shame and stigma parents might feel due to the lack of societal awareness around disabilities and the lack of institutional support that could help with creating a more inclusive environment.

CWDs funds allocation is very low. If parents who have a diagnosis also have the means to support the child, they have little to no educational support because of a lack of qualified staff training or limited resources. There is little to no access to supplies, tools, critical interventions, and necessary trainings for specialists. Specialists may have to look beyond Yemen’s borders for supplies, making interventions more expensive and more difficult to obtain. Alsakkaf explained at length the problems she faced trying to start a local center. First, in order to be properly certified and able to diagnose children with speech delays and learning disabilities, she had to travel to Egypt because the certification she was seeking was not available in Yemen. Second, she had to purchase the necessary supplies, toys, and books from Saudi Arabia as they were not available in Sana’a. Third, she spoke of the difficulty of dealing with parents who reject either the diagnosis or treatment plans due to stigma or shame. Her activities at the center are meant to work in tandem with the child’s progress at school. However, the large gap that exists between her specialized work and the private education system’s ability to meet the needs of CWDs or learning difficulties hinders progress. This noticeable lag in their children’s education prompts parents to ask her to teach the children full time, which she is neither able nor qualified to do.

A ministry worker in Sanaa, who makes field visits to schools whenever funding is available, explained how they often rely on donations for individual cases that they felt could be helped, such as children who need hearing or walking aids. She expressed that these one-off interventions were naturally much easier to obtain than the long-term interventions needed for children with learning disabilities. She also stated that the first crucial intervention she needs is to train more women and men to make field visits to schools in villages to be able to give basic support and advice when possible. Basic support would be a preliminary diagnosis or assessing basic infrastructural needs in a community, such as an accessibility ramp. These field visits could help assist teachers not only to recognize early signs of learning difficulties or mental health issues but also to talk to parents, create a rehabilitation plan for the child, and raise general awareness about the different kinds of disabilities.

An NGO employee who works in child protection has highlighted the fact that even when the target group is not CWDs, they try to incorporate them as much as possible by making community events or sessions accessible. Without these small interventions, the children would not be engaged as there is often no funding allocated for targeting their needs. Similar approaches in education were taken by Save the Children UK working in China and in Nigeria,13 where local staff assessed the needs and tried to incorporate CWDs in schools by engaging communities.

People working on the ground can and have found ways to be more inclusive, and post-conflict education reform can benefit from the experiences of educators, specialists, NGO workers, etc. to map and document the simple ways communities have been coping despite the lack of funding or structural support.

Amidst the increase of cases, societal discrimination must be addressed

The increase in CWDs numbers since 2015 is due to two main factors. The first is children who have either been traumatized or have sustained physical injuries due to the war. The second is children who have not been diagnosed early enough nor received time-sensitive treatment or interventions during infanthood because of a lack of means or access to adequate healthcare centers. The lack of definitive data, however, makes it difficult to understand exactly the extent of the issues faced and how to reach the most vulnerable of children, particularly those with less visible disabilities.

A short survey with four mothers of children with autism or learning difficulties in Sanaa was conducted. They all stated that their children currently receive no support from any government or international entity and that support within their educational environment was minimal; however, they did not disclose what kind of support they received. Two stated that there is a lack of inclusivity and support from their children’s schools or centers, while two stated that they received some sort of support. It is important to note that all the children were in private schools or received treatment from specialized professionals and were able to seek help beyond the government or NGO spheres.

However, even in many private schools, there is almost no link between the child’s education and the child’s rehabilitation in private centers. Teachers are not equipped with the necessary pedagogies that will allow them to meet the needs of students who have different kinds of disabilities or learning difficulties. Studies on children with disabilities from countries such as Afghanistan and South Sudan show that children with mental disabilities or learning difficulties face more obstacles or are more excluded. A 2012 study on Afghanistan used literacy and primary school completion as indicators to understand how children with mobility disabilities fared compared to children with other forms of disabilities that may be invisible, such as sensory and behavioral difficulties. They found that children who had invisible disabilities and learning difficulties had the lowest rates of completion and had very low literacy rates.14 Children with mobility disabilities performed better than children with invisible or functional difficulties.15 A 2011 study in South Sudan to assess the vulnerability of children in Umm Kher, Western Darfur State, noted that children with mental health problems and learning disabilities appeared to be significantly under-represented in the surveys by local disabled people’s organizations (DPOs).16 The need for early detection training for educators and community workers is key to making sure children receive the care they need as early as possible and the need for disability pedagogy training for teachers is key to giving children a chance to perform well in their school environments.

This invisibility in society and in policy making discussions means children and families do not receive the help they need; the ramifications of which have moral, social, and economic dimensions. Addressing the needs of CWDs and creating space for dialogue that centers their needs disrupts the status quo and encourages post-conflict reconstruction efforts to create a new system that is inclusive and open to change.17 The shame and stigma can also be addressed through institutional changes that normalize disabilities and learning difficulties by making educational facilities more inclusive and accessible and ensuring that curricular changes not only accommodate the needs of CWDs but also reflect the inclusive environment needed to foster positive change.

These barriers are part of a larger societal problem which discriminates against people with disabilities and can prompt parents to explain away certain behaviors, blame the school environment for their children’s lack of academic progress, or keep them at home and away from others so they are not exposed to shame or abuse.18 When asked how they think the denial, shame, and stigma could be alleviated, all of the professionals interviewed stated that awareness campaigns at the national, community, and educational sector level (as negative perceptions can also be held by educators)19 would be a crucial first step.20

Reconstruction needs better disabilities data

A study by Sarah Dryden‐Peterson identifies the reconstruction phase as the stage when inequitable systems of education can be dismantled and innovation and reform can be introduced.21 This has also been echoed by multiple scholars who discuss inclusive education reforms in post-conflict settings in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and elsewhere.

It is in this reconstruction phase that educational reform is believed to be most effective. However, there is a gap between policy making, policy implementation, and lived realities as well as what forms of indicators qualify as success. In some cases, an increase in reach was enough to qualify as a successful indicator, whereas the quality of the education provided, or the extent of accessibility, was not measured.

Faizah Alsulaimani, Partnership and External Relation Director at SMEPS Yemen, noted that one way to address the huge gap between meaningful policy making and effective implementation is to create a task force dedicated to mapping the needs of CWDs and their communities and to advocate for raising the profile on inclusive education reform in the post-conflict reconstruction agenda. Data collection – disaggregated by type of disability – is central to proper advocacy, and it is necessary to increase efforts to support data collection in order to ensure both policy making and implementation mechanisms reflect the needs on the ground.

The importance of thorough data collection that is disaggregated by type of disability is also stressed by the World Bank (WB). The Yemen Restoring Education and Learning Emergency Project that was approved for 2020-2024 does not include initiatives for disability inclusive education. However, the WB aims to ensure all projects are disability inclusive by 2025 and as per their Guidance Note on how to work towards this goal, they highlight what the challenges are, how to support effective data collection, and how to engage relevant stakeholders and decision makers about prioritizing disability inclusive education.22 The guide also includes what accessibility options could support the education of children with different disabilities including cognitive and psycho-social disabilities. These tools are useful for advocacy and for creating a national education strategy that gives the needs of CWDs the attention they deserve.

For future CWDs integration, education reform is key

As the conflict in Yemen continues to rage on and the dynamics change, new realities must be taken into consideration when conceptualizing a post-conflict transition plan. Education reform in the post-conflict reconstruction phase can play a positive role in creating a more equitable society. All children in Yemen deserve to have their place in school, but children with disabilities, be they visible or less visible, will need more support; support which must be integrated in the rebuilding process.

This will mean dedicating more resources not only to the physical reconstruction to ensure accessibility but also improving teacher training and the curriculum to create an environment that will foster inclusion. Dedicating necessary resources to inclusive education signals an acknowledgment that children with disabilities and learning difficulties have a right to education but also have value within the societies they live in. We must not only think in terms of what benefit societies can gain when investing in the education of disabled children but also that these children have a right to access education. It should neither be left as an afterthought for future integration nor viewed as a luxury because the entire system is broken.

Multiple stakeholders have stressed the importance of increasing data collection efforts and disaggregating by gender, age, location, disability, and socioeconomic status. Local stakeholders must be supported in efforts to locate, register, and identify cases using proper screening methods that include invisible disabilities. This is essential in order to effectively advocate for change and reflect the extent and urgency of the problem.

One way to support data collection is to create a robust forum for educators, specialists, health care workers, local NGO and DPO workers, people with disabilities, and parents of CWDs. This forum should be commissioned with carrying out a comprehensive mapping exercise to understand which interventions work/do not work, the unique challenges faced by children with different kinds of disabilities and difficulties, and the kind of educational reform necessary to foster inclusion. The findings from this forum could help inform public officials, policy makers, and INGOs of the kind of educational reform that is needed.

Based on forum outcomes, advocacy campaigns must be designed with two approaches: a) to ensure government officials’ political support and to ensure inclusive education reform will be high on the post-conflict agenda, and b) to provide financiers with adequate data to demonstrate political commitment to secure the funding necessary to ensure CWDs are included in education reform plans.


Maali Jamil is a Yemen Policy Center Associate Fellow. She is a Yemeni educator and writer, pursuing a degree in history and international relations at Utrecht University. Her research focuses on education, peacebuilding, and youth mobilization. Alongside her academic work, Maali’s personal writings reflect her experiences and observations in Yemen. She has contributed to ‘APuZ’ (On Politics and Contemporary History), Newlines Magazine, and Al-Madanyia.

Donor:
German Federal Foreign Office
Editors:
Kamilia El-Eryani
Jatinder Padda
Translators:
Enas El-Torky
Image:
Yemeni students sit inside a makeshift school classroom. A Yemeni man has turned his house into a school to educate hundreds of students who could not enrol in formal education as a result of the war. 3 October 2018, Taiz, Yemen. Photo: Ahmed Al-Basha/dpa/Alamy.

  1. ‘The Restoring Education and Learning Project’ (UNICEF, n.d.), an https://www.unicef.org/yemen/restoring-education-and-learning-project.
  2. ‘The Restoring Education and Learning Project’.
  3. ‘Yemen: Conflict Leaves Millions of Children without Proper Education’ (International Committee of the Red Cross, n.d.), https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/yemen-conflict-leaves-millions-children-without-proper-education-enar.
  4. ‘Article 1 – Purpose | United Nations Enable’, https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities/article-1-purpose.html.
  5. Mohammed AlAbed and Adnan Qatinah, ‘Mapping Available Assistance to Children with Disabilities in Yemen’ (United Nations Children’s Fund, December 2020), https://www.unicef.org/yemen/documents/mapping-available-assistance-children-disabilities-yemen.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, 10.
  8. ibid., 37.
  9. Yemen Transitional Education Sector Plan 2019/20-2021/22. https://www.globalpartnership.org/content/transitional-education-sector-plan-201920-202122-yemen.
  10. ‘Promoting the Inclusion of Children and Young People with Disabilities in Education in the Arab Region: An Analysis of Existing Developments, Challenges and Opportunities – UNESCO Digital Library’, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000383309?posInSet=7&queryId=916887a7-19f1-4c81-8b4e-eee656c4f641.
  11. Stephen M Lange, ‘Early Identification and Interventions For Children At Risk For Learning Disabilities’, International Journal Of Special Education 21 (2006): 108.
  12. Interview with NGO employee #3, n.d.
  13. Susie Miles, ‘Education in Times of Conflict and the Invisibility of Disability: A Focus on Iraq?’, Disability & Society 28, no. 6 (September 2013): 808, https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2013.802220.
  14. Jean-Francois Trani, Parul Bakhshi, and Anand Nandipati, ‘“Delivering” Education; Maintaining Inequality. The Case of Children with Disabilities in Afghanistan’, Cambridge Journal of Education 42, no. 3 (September 2012): 355–56, https://doi.org/10.1080/0305764X.2012.706259.
  15. Trani, Bakhshi, and Nandipati, 355–56.
  16. Jean-Francois Trani et al., ‘Disability, Vulnerability and Citizenship: To What Extent Is Education a Protective Mechanism for Children with Disabilities in Countries Affected by Conflict?’, International Journal of Inclusive Education 15, no. 10 (December 2011): 1192, https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2011.555078.
  17. Miles, ‘Education in Times of Conflict and the Invisibility of Disability’, 798.
  18. AlAbed and Qatinah, ‘Mapping Available Assistance to Children with Disabilities in Yemen’, 111.
  19. ‘Seen, Counted, Included: Using Data to Shed Light on the Well-Being of Children with Disabilities’, UNICEF DATA, 9 November 2021, 95, https://data.unicef.org/resources/children-with-disabilities-report-2021/.
  20. This research is based on the experiences and opinions of people in Yemen who work with children with disabilities and learning difficulties in multiple capacities. The findings are consistent with those from international NGO reports. Two disability rights activists were also consulted. However, a limitation of this study, due to time and length, is that I was unable to include a collection of first-hand testimonies of people with disabilities. Future research would benefit from those perspectives.
  21. Sarah Dryden‐Peterson, ‘Policies for Education in Conflict and Post‐Conflict Reconstruction’, The Handbook of Global Education Policy, 2016, 189–205.
  22. World Bank, Criteria for the World Bank’s Disability-Inclusive Investment Project Financing (IPF) in Education: Guidance Note (World Bank, 2021), https://doi.org/10.1596/37231.
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