The impact of UK Aid on inclusive education

Maria Njeri

Maria Njeri is our global youth advocate. She tells us about her experience in education and discusses the impact UK Aid has on inclusive education.

I’m Maria Njeri, a disability rights advocate from Kenya. I was born with cerebral palsy. I use my experiences of discrimination to advocate for the rights of others through my awareness-raising platform, the Njeri Maria Foundation. 

Disability-inclusive progress so far 

It’s been two years since the UK hosted the Global Disability Summit (GDS). The summit brought together national governments, donor countries, the private sector and Disabled People Organisations (DPOs). 

It was a moment of celebration. It sent a clear message to people with disabilities all across the world. “We’ve heard you, things need to change, and we’re committed to making sure your rights are fulfilled.” Since then, the UK has been a strong leader in ensuring people with disabilities are not left behind as part of global development programmes.

Disability-inclusive strategies are so important. They can have a life-changing impact. They support people with disabilities into education, employment and society. Had more disability-inclusive programmes been around when I was younger, my school experience could have been very different. 

Disability discrimination at school

From a young age, discrimination was no stranger to me. Growing up with a disability can be challenging enough. But in many cultures, being a girl with a disability is seen as a taboo. My gender puts me at a disadvantage. I felt people looked at me differently, particularly in school. 

My parents were keen to integrate me as much as they could. To help with this, the Kenya Institute of Special Education advised that I should also attend a mainstream school. After all, schools should be inclusive, shouldn’t they? But not everyone agreed. There was a lot of backlash from the schools and the community. People thought I should attend a special needs school. They didn’t think mainstream education would be able to accommodate me and I would be better suited elsewhere. Unfortunately, I faced this discriminative mindset at all levels of my education – primary, secondary and even university. 

I also had to deal with a lot of discrimination from my teachers. Most teachers in typical schools don't get trained in special education, and this impacted my school experience. I would get punished for being slow in writing and reading. I got beaten for not finishing work on time. I felt embarrassed for not keeping up with the other students. 

Lack of understanding and reasonable adjustments

There were also very few reasonable adjustments made for me to make sure I could keep on track, especially in primary school. There was also no education for other students about children with disabilities and our varying needs. We all know children can be mean – but often they learn this from the adults around them, like their parents and teachers. Because of this, I was teased and bullied often. I felt like I didn’t fit in and often missed out on extracurricular activities because of it. 

My experience didn’t get any easier as I got older. When I was applying for universities, one of my main requests was being able to use a laptop in class. I’m faster at typing than writing, so this would make note-taking a more natural process for me. However, some universities declined my applications on this reason alone!

My exams were always a challenge. Previously in primary school, I wasn’t allowed reasonable adjustments like extra time, a room alone or even a laptop. There was little understanding or appreciation of the small things which can create more inclusive learning environments for diverse learners.

The value of inclusive education programmes

For education to be inclusive, everyone needs to know what that means – students, teachers and parents. Integration can help with this understanding. And inclusion also means understanding why, where and when exclusion happens. 

We need to eliminate the segregation of children with special needs and integrate them and include them in mainstream schools. Not just for learning, but social interaction too. Teachers also need to be better equipped in understanding the varying needs of different students. Special needs training should be mandatory. Children should be taught about inclusion as well. 

But we need the right programmes in place to do this. UK Aid funding has made such a difference to inclusive education at a national, regional and local level. Last year Leonard Cheshire’s programmes alone supported over 5,000 children with disabilities in Africa to get an education. This is amazing. But funding support and political commitments need to continue and increase to keep making this progress. The global landscape is fast changing while the UK is reshaping its international affairs model. But whatever happens, we cannot go back on the promises that were made two years ago at the GDS. 

There is still a long way to go. We need to build back better and more inclusive so that every child with a disability has access to quality education.

I hope that the UK will continue to be such a strong leader in supporting disability inclusion tomorrow, and in the years to come. Its contribution has been crucial to the lives of thousands of children with disabilities. And have helped make sure that other students don’t have to face the same discrimination that I did.