Tamara deBruyn l Palladium - Dec 03 2020
Creating a More Inclusive Classroom for Students with Disabilities in Indonesia


To mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Palladium’s Tamara deBruyn, Contractor Representative for the Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (INOVASI) program, shares key takeaways from a recent study on disability inclusion in Indonesian schools and what it means for teacher training moving forward.

The fundamental human right for children with disabilities to access quality, inclusive education is clearly articulated in many treaties, most recently and explicitly in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Yet, UNESCO’s global analysis of multiple national datasets shows that people with disabilities worldwide are less likely to attend school or complete primary or secondary education.

Today, on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I have been reflecting on my journey working to mainstream disability inclusion in international development.

I began my career in international development 15 years ago, assuming that building ramps on schools would be a game-changer for inclusive education. And while they are a crucial physical enabler for accessing classrooms, ramps alone do very little to facilitate education for all. In fact, inclusive education goes well beyond physically enabling access to schools.

Since joining the INOVASI team, I have continued to learn more about the importance of disability inclusion in schools for both students and teachers with every pilot program we roll out. Launched in 2016, part of INOVASI’s mandate has included piloting different ways to identify and reduce barriers to education for children with disabilities using an adaptive management approach.

When it comes to understanding what does and does not work to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities, the key to INOVASI’s success has been the ability to “fail fast” and adapt quickly.

Piloting Programs to Reduce Barriers

INOVASI recently published a study on early findings from the disability inclusion aspects of the program’s work, to identify what enablers and barriers we need to be aware of moving forward. The study focused on six-month pilot activities in three very different districts across Indonesia over four years, including several aimed at developing teachers’ capacity.

The study revealed impressive improvements in learning outcomes among students with disabilities in the schools in which INOVASI was working, highlighting the value of strengthening disability data systems and policy tools to enable inclusive education.

But the findings were not all positive; many teachers had difficulty identifying disabilities and knowing how to support children with disabilities. The data also revealed surprisingly low teacher competence in literacy and numeracy, which led to teachers assuming that students had disabilities, rather than acknowledging that the difficulties may instead be due to poor teaching. In response, INOVASI adapted its programs in the selected districts to focus on strengthening teacher competencies in literacy, with a secondary emphasis on inclusive teaching skills.

While the data has shown impressive improvements in learning outcomes among students with disabilities in the INOVASI schools, we still have a long way to go.

Moving Forward: Building Teacher Capacity

The study highlighted several important implications for the next four years of INOVASI.

Without an effective, evidence-based approach to identifying disabilities, teachers can be quick to label students incorrectly and subsequently pay less attention and provide inadequate learning support to those students. 

Simply put, when teachers understand that students learn at different paces and in different ways, they realise that a disability is not the only explanation for a child not learning effectively.

While it is critical to build teachers’ capacity to identify a disability, there are risks with rolling out substandard approaches for this, as there is likely to be a spike in false-positive disabilities reported. To successfully identify a disability, teachers must improve their own skills in teaching literacy and numeracy, recognise the natural diversity of learning abilities and styles, and be able to use a standardised, evidence-based approach to identifying disability.

These findings surprised me, but they really shouldn’t have. As I look back over the past 15 years, building teacher capacity has always been at the centre of successful education reform programs. I am thankful that I am now part of more than just constructing ramps on schools. Not to say that those ramps aren’t important, but studies like INOVASI’s highlight that major system reform is required for education to be truly inclusive for persons with disability. Building teachers’ capacity is central to this.

While there is still so much to achieve, I am hopeful that the work we are doing through INOVASI will play an important part in the efforts to progress Indonesia’s inclusive education reforms.

INOVASI is implemented by Palladium, with funding from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture. For more information, visit www.inovasi.or.id/en.