Children With Disabilities: Please Stay Home

Sep 21, 2011 | Updated Nov 21, 2011

Imagine for a moment that you are the father of a 13-year old girl with autism, living in Nepal. You approach public and private schools alike and are repeatedly told that the school can't handle your child.

So instead, you join with other parents of children with developmental disabilities and start a day care center, where your daughter can at least learn daily life skills and enjoy music and dance with her peers.

One day, one of the teachers asks you not to bring your daughter to school this week. The teacher explains that your daughter has her period now and doesn't know how to behave. She smears blood on her face and arms, so it's better not to bring her in.

This story is not fiction. This is Mukunda's reality.

He shared this recent experience at a news conference for a new Human Rights Watch report about education barriers for children with disabilities in Nepal.

Mukunda then framed the issue: "If teachers tell me, one of the founders of this school, not to bring my child, I can't imagine what they say to parents of other children in the day care center. But I also don't know how to help my daughter in this situation."

Mukunda's situation is not unique. Tens of thousands of children with disabilities in Nepal are denied a quality education because of physical and communication barriers, teachers' lack of skills and negative attitudes of both teachers and parents.

And Nepal is not alone. Countries around the globe have pledged to provide primary education for all children by 2015, as part of the UN Millennium Development Goals. Yet according to the UN, children with disabilities represent more than one-third of the 67 million children who are not in school worldwide.

Government officials, international nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies in Nepal were quick to acknowledge when we met with them that children with disabilities in Nepal are left out of school in large numbers. A senior UNICEF official admitted that addressing the needs of children with disabilities "fell through the cracks."

But being sympathetic and recognizing there's a problem are not enough. These children have been overlooked for years. They have been cheated of their futures. And parents have also been denied the support they need.

The bottom line is: When it comes to the education of children with disabilities in Nepal, the government and its development partners are failing.

These officials and international agencies need to take immediate steps to address the barriers that keep children with disabilities, like Mukunda's daughter, from attending school.

The World Bank, Asian Development Bank and UNICEF have invested millions of dollars to improve Nepal's school system and have worked closely with the Ministry of Education as well as local school systems to help Nepal meet its commitment. These development partners are uniquely placed to put pressure on the Nepalese government to make the necessary efforts to include children with disabilities in the general education system. Teachers need to be adequately trained, the curriculum needs to be more flexible to address the learning abilities of all children, support mechanisms for parents need to be established.

These steps may involve time, effort and expertise, but failing to provide a basic education to children with disabilities cannot be justified because it is difficult. Children with disabilities have the same rights as all other children.

In addition to calling on Nepal to respect its human rights obligations to children with disabilities, international donors need to ensure that their own development assistance strategies and policies hold up to the principles of non-discrimination, inclusion and equality.

The Nepal government has made great strides toward achieving the goal of universal primary education. Yet without targeted efforts to ensure that children with disabilities have access to quality and inclusive education on an equal basis with other children, this goal will remain elusive. And children with disabilities - like Mukunda's daughter - will remain at home, shut out from school and from the opportunity to learn and live with dignity.