In light of the international commitment to Education for All (EFA), how are girls with disabilities faring? In truth, we don't know, although from what we can tell, they are not faring well. Widespread cultural biases based on gender and disability greatly limit their educational opportunities. Why don't we know more? Those committed to gender equity, by failing to consider disability, and those committed to disability equity, by failing to consider gender, have unwittingly rendered disabled girls invisible.
Girls with disabilities are a large, diverse group, although it is difficult to determine exactly who and how many are included, in part because there are many definitions of disability, not only across countries but also within the same country. These varied definitions demonstrate that disability is a social construct, as much rooted in cultural, social, political, legal and economic factors as in biology. While the World Health Organization is currently leading an effort to achieve a new international definition that considers many of these factors, no consensus has yet been reached. Here, girls with disabilities are defined as those with physical, sensory, emotional, intellectual, learning, health or other disabilities that may be visible or invisible, stable or progressive, occurring at birth or during childhood.
Given the diversity of definitions, there are no clear statistics on the number or percentage of girls with disabilities, or people with disabilities, for that matter. WHO has estimated that between seven and ten percent of the world's population has some type of disability and that 80 percent of these live in developing countries (WHO, 1999). UNESCO and others estimate that the number of children with disabilities under the age of 18 around the world varies from 120 to 150 million. Even assuming that girls make up somewhat less than half of all children with disabilities, as some research suggests (Groce, 1999), the number of girls with disabilities worldwide is likely to be substantial.
Double discrimination in education and beyond
Available data, most focused on literacy, indicate that women and girls with disabilities fare less well in the educational arena than either their disabled male or nondisabled female counterparts. For example, UNESCO, the World Blind Union and others estimate the literacy rate for disabled women as one percent, compared to an estimate of about three percent for people with disabilities as a whole (Groce, 1997). Statistics from individual countries and regions, while often higher, nonetheless confirm the gender inequities (Nagata, 2003). In terms of school enrollment, UNESCO suggests that only two percent of disabled children are in school, with disabled girls even more underserved (www.unesco.org). These findings in education are part of a larger picture of double discrimination based on gender and disability that pervades the lives of women and girls with disabilities in all areas, including employment, income level, health care, marriage and parenting. Underlying the double discrimination is negative attitudes about women compounded by negative attitudes toward disability that often cut across cultures and level of development. Disabled women and girls are commonly stereotyped as sick, helpless, childlike, dependent, incompetent and asexual, greatly limiting their options and opportunities.
The invisibility of disabled girls
The biggest barrier to educational equity for girls with disabilities may be their invisibility. They are not on the radar screen of either those committed to educational equity for girls-because as a rule, disability is not included in their work--or those committed to educational equity for children with disabilities-because with similar oversight, gender is not considered.
The literature on disabled girls and education is sparse. This holds true for countries at all levels of development, including the United States (Rousso, 2001b). Research is limited and consists largely of small qualitative studies. Such research, while invaluable in identifying barriers, rarely includes comparisons with both disabled boys and nondisabled girls, making it difficult to identify the joint impact of gender and disability bias.
Informal sources of information for this paper
Given the lack of research, much of the information in this report is anecdotal, and includes most significantly, responses to the author's request for information on barriers to education for disabled girls, sent out to a broad range of disability, disabled women's and educational organizations in Africa, the Asian Pacific region, Australia, Eastern and Western Europe, Canada and Latin America1. Out of the two or so dozen responses received, a few made reference to recent reports on the status of disabled women and girls in their country, and some created reports on disabled girls and education in response to the request. Most simply shared their perceptions on the issue or acknowledged that they had no information.
Lack of programs and policies for disabled girls
Available information demonstrates the dearth of policies and programs that specifically address the educational needs of disabled girls, and the failure of gender equity and disability equity programs to serve them.
In the United States, there are at best a handful of programs specifically designed for girls with disabilities (Froschl, et al, 2001). While there are a range of policies and programs to promote educational equity for girls, these have largely overlooked disabled girls. Similarly while strong disability rights legislation has produced a range of efforts to promote educational equity for disabled children, few have been gender-specific or have included gender specific components to address the unique barriers facing disabled girls.
Beyond the US, little program development is underway for girls with disabilities. For example, the South African Development Community (SADC) notes: "Despite the fact that the disabled girl-child deserves special attention, no country in the SADC has given the matter specific attention. Very little has been done to address the education needs of the disabled girl-child" (SADC, 1999).
In response to the query about policies and programs for disabled girls, what was most frequently mentioned was residential special education centers for girls. While these were clearly examples of gender-segregated schools, there was no evidence that their programs were gender-sensitive, that is, designed with girls' unique needs in mind.
A heterogeneous group
It is important to acknowledge the heterogeneity of disabled girls. Their access to education is affected not only by their gender and disability but also their type of disability, the socioeconomic status of their family, their race/ethnicity, whether they live in an urban or rural area, and a host of other factors.
There is a circular relationship between poverty and disability. Poverty causes disability, particularly in women and girls, who in the face of limited resources are more likely than their male counterparts to be deprived of basic necessities, such as food and medicine (Groce, 1997). Disability, in turn, can contribute to poverty, because of the additional expenses that it can entail. Thus, disabled girls are more likely to grow up in poor families, a reality that in itself places them at an educational disadvantage. From what we know, disabled girls living in rural areas also have less access to education. In addition, there are some indications that girls with mobility disabilities may have more access to education, particularly community-based education, than girls who are blind, deaf or have other disabilities, since mobility-impaired students, if they can get in the building, are less likely to need modified teaching techniques and devices. How gender interacts with these various other factors is not always certain.