Disability remains a major health concern worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are about 650 million persons living with a sensory, physical, intellectual or mental impairment in the world and of this total, 80 per cent live in low-income countries. Disability is both a cause and a consequence of poverty, where persons with disabilities are not only economically disempowered, but socially and culturally disempowered and excluded. Due to social exclusion and discrimination in the labor market, persons with disabilities may be disproportionately affected by unemployment, leading to an increased incidence of poverty. Additionally, healthcare costs related to having a disability are often high, and families headed by persons with disabilities are, more often than not, poor.

Persons with disabilities (PWDs) experience a broad range of inequalities in their daily lives, including limited access to a quality education within an inclusive environment.

One of the biggest challenges facing the African continent in particular and generally, the world at large today is the growing number of children living with physical, sensory or emotional impairments or learning difficulties who are formerly excluded from meaningful participation in the mainstream or regular educational system as a result of their conditions.

The situation of disabled children not enrolled in regular schools is particularly distressing. According to the International Consultative Forum – on Education for All, 2000, there are still an estimated 113 million primary school age children with disabilities who are not attending school and over 80 million of these children live in Africa. Amongst those who manage to enroll in primary schools, large numbers find themselves dropping out before completing their primary education.

The alarming and distressing situation of CWDs not going to school  is also orchestrated by the fact that valid and reliable baseline data on children with disabilities are rare, and statistics on those who are enrolled in schools are often incomplete. Persons with disabilities living in poor communities in developing countries are often invisible and hidden away due to the stigma, stereotype, discrimination and the taboo that exist about disability.

Despite the growing calls for disabled persons to be included in the development processes of their respective communities, disabled children appear to have unequal access to education in their neighbourhood schools, a prerequisite for full participation in development and an open door for employment opportunities for all, irrespective of one’s ability or disability.

In Cameroon for instance, following the adoption of the recent Law N° 2010/002 of 13 April 2010 relating to the protection and welfare of persons with disabilities and by virtue of Section 28, it was expected that children with disabilities would meaningfully gain access to an inclusive or mainstream educational services. This law specifically endorses the need for equality of educational opportunities to all children irrespective of any real or imagined disability. This policy statement is well intended. Regrettably, its attainment under the present situation seems to be an illusion.

In most African countries, the policy and legal framework enacted to guide inclusive school practice are neither fully implemented nor supported by adequate human, material and financial resources in schools as clearly manifested by school related challenges namely; the inappropriate curriculum and teaching style, lack of instructional materials, limited numbers of Special Education Needs(SEN) teachers to accommodate disabled children in their regular classroom activities, unfriendly environment to children with disabilities, discriminatory attitudes from teachers and fellow peers which bar children with disabilities from obtaining an adequate education and opportunities for full social life; Economic factors like high level of educational costs, household poverty, and high cost of instructional materials. The socio-cultural factors such as negative traditional attitudes an practices, complacency among parents, lack of acceptance and cruelty from peers, coupled with an inadequately addressed policy environment have all compounded the problem of access to regular schools by children with disabilities.

Instead, the education of children with disabilities has been provided only in purely specialized schools located in urban areas. Consequently, only a handful of children with disabilities have the privilege to access segregated special schools located only in urban areas with very high cost. What becomes of the remaining majority of disabled children who live in rural communities and whose parents cannot afford to register them in special schools due to the distance and high cost involved? The end results have always been that of exclusion and massive drop-outs from school.

Inclusion is seen as a universal human right embracing all people irrespective of race, gender, disability, health, socio-economic status, etc. Inclusion means making room for all to be part of society, whether at the level of national law or at a local level for example, in terms of how a game is organized or a lesson at school is taught. Inclusion is basically a question of thinking “we” from the beginning; not “us” and “them.”

No doubt the Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report of 2010 admits that “Disability is one of the least visible but most potent factors in educational marginalization”.

The importance of education cannot be overemphasized. Education is an important investment that a country can make and enhancing accessibility to educational services is significant in the development of a nation. This is because education positively affects socio-economic behaviour such as productivity, living standards, health and demographic characteristics of any population. Likewise, it opens infinity of possibilities for society that would otherwise be denied namely; a better chance to lead healthy and productive lives, building strong and nurturing families, participating fully in civic affairs of their communities, molding morals and values, creating culture and shaping history. It is a solid foundation for progress and sustainable development, an inherent human rights and critical step towards dismantling the gender discrimination that threatens all other rights catalyzing freedom and democracy within borders and extending its reach as an agent of international peace and security.

Education is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty. UNESCO declares that no civil, political, economic and social right can be exercised by individuals unless they have received a certain minimum education.

Adam Smith in his highly acclaimed book “The Wealth of Nations,” written at the end of the 18th century stated that: “instructed and intelligent People are always more decent and orderly than ignorant and stupid ones; they are more disposed to examine situations and capable of seeing through the complaints of interested factions and sedition and they upon this account, are less apt to be misled into wanton or unnecessary opposition to the measures of government”.

Along the same line of reasoning, Diderot in the 18th Century in France in support of basic education is quoted to have written: “A peasant who knows how to read and write is more difficult to oppress.”

 Delor affirmed that education is a crucial factor in social and personal development, an indispensable asset in the attempt to attain the ideals of peace, freedom, and justice. This reiterates the point that education is one of the principal means available to foster a deeper and more harmonious form of human development and thereby reduce poverty and exclusion.

According to James Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank, “Unless disabled people are brought into the development mainstream, it will be impossible to cut poverty in half by 2015.”

Education as a fundamental human right for all, including disabled children, has also been enshrined in international instruments following the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the 10th December, 1948. In fact, article 26 of this Declaration boldly provides that ‘everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory…..’

Disabled children have a right to education as enshrined in both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) of 1989 and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) of 2006. These conventions have been widely signed and ratified in Africa. The conventions outline the requirements that the education available to children with disabilities and young people should facilitate the development of potential, talent and creativity as well as an enabling participation in a free society. They also require that inclusive quality and free primary and secondary education, with reasonable accommodation of individual needs, is available locally for all.

In the light of this and under article 24 of the (UNCRPD), disabled children have the right to “an inclusive, quality and free primary and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live”

The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) of 1981 further makes it clear in article 17 by stating that, ‘Every individual shall have the right to education.’

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) 1990 also protects the rights of children with disabilities to education. Most importantly, Article 11 makes a special provision on the education of children in general by stating in Sub 3(d) that State parties to the present Charter shall take all appropriate measures with a view to achieving the full realization of this right and shall in particular: take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates”.

In the push for Education for All (EFA) initiatives, it has been recognized that the second United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) cannot be met if children with disabilities (CWDs) continue a life of educational marginalization and exclusion from the regular school system.  The right to education is also enshrined in the constitution of all independent nations in Africa.

Readers, the biggest rhetoric question that this writer always asks himself and which I will like you to ponder over is: why do African leaders take pleasure in accepting, signing and ratifying international instruments and conventions when they lack the will power to implement such laws and policies? Who are we fooling and deceiving?

The most interesting part of it all, and which I would send a message of congratulation to African Heads of State if I had the opportunity to do so is that African countries have hit the records when it comes to accepting and ratifying international treaties. But ironically, or better still regrettably, they vehemently and deliberately refuse to implement the laws that they accepted.

There is an urgent need to begin changing our perspectives, moving from the traditional way of looking at things to a more pluralistic and integrated perspective for an improved and a better society where everyone, irrespective of any imagined or real ability or disability will have his or her voice heard in the decision making and development processes of their communities.

We should all decode and deconstruct the old aged traditional beliefs, obnoxious social representations of disability and the cruel mentality linked to numerous stereotypes, where people thought that a disabled person was bound to a wheel chair, and that persons with disabilities are patients who cannot live a fulfilling life, talk less of being productive. Gone are those days.

The society is called upon to include persons with disabilities in the development processes of their communities so that they too can participate in the decisions affecting their  lives, so as to enjoy a self reliant and independent life just like their able bodied peers and folks.