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Empowering students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis

Empowering students with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis

Key facts

  • Approximately 15% of the world’s population, 1representing more than 1 billion people, live with disabilities, and 2% to 4% find day-to-day life challenging without assistance.
  • Disability is more prevalent in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries. 2
  • Disability, gender, nationality, ethnicity, poverty and many other factors affect internet access. An online-based, high-tech approach is not always ideal for creating an inclusive learning environment.
  • Currently, because of a lack of disaggregated data and information, it is unclear how many students with disabilities are receiving inadequate educational support as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Educational needs for students with disabilities amid COVID-19

Around the globe, the lives of at least 1.5 billion students and their families have been significantly affected by the school closures caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. 3 Governments have responded by holding classes remotely – largely online – to ensure that students continue to study.

However, this measure does not address educational discontinuity and disruption for all students. The estimate of 1.5 billion affected students does not take into account all of those who are marginalized, disadvantaged or “invisible” in educational systems. Online and high-tech-based learning platforms and resources need to be available and all students’ needs must be accommodated in order for governments, schools and teachers to ensure that learners are not left behind during school closures as well as after schools reopen, whether this occurs in six months or in a year.

Barriers to education through remote-learning practices

Students with disabilities experience a variety of barriers to education.  For example:

  • In health crises such as COVID-19, persons with disabilities are often provided with less help and inadequately trained teachers. 4
  • More time and resources are required for students with disabilities to actively participate in learning. 5 This includes equipment, internet access and specially designed materials and support. This makes learning more costly for students and their families.
  • Students with disabilities are negatively affected by the classroom shutdown in additional ways. They lose access to school meals 6 and to play with their friends, 7 which are equally important for development and learning.
  • Another barrier is that many teachers lack ICT skills and knowledge. Forty percent of teachers in OECD countries, on average, lack professional ICT skills. 8 They are unprepared to teach online and cannot ensure student engagement, specifically for students with disabilities.  Currently, there is no available data on special-education teachers’ digital skills in developing or least-developed countries.

Addressing barriers to education and relevant resources

Governments can improve learning processes and outcomes of students with disabilities during a crisis such as COVID-19 by:

1. Assessing accommodations

Educators, parents and individual students assess each student’s situation and discuss adjustments needed for remote learning. Some examples include using alternatives to print, such as audio or other formats in instruction, as well as pictures, flexible scheduling and deadlines, and assistive technology.


2. Modifying curricula and instructions

Learning in a remote setting may differ from mainstream, classroom-based environments. This includes expectations for students and course methodology. Curricula must often be adjusted. For example, homework can be simplified, allowing students to dictate rather than type, and audio materials can be provided for reading assignments.


3. Utilizing universal design for learning (UDL)

UDL aims to help teachers reach a wide variety of students, focusing on how students learn and demonstrate knowledge.


4. Implementing project-based learning

Studies show that students with disabilities learn more by using research and analysis to complete a project. Project-based learning also improves self-esteem and promotes positive engagement. Both special and general-education teachers are vital for this type of learning. They need to design and introduce assignments and make sure that everyone understands how to complete them.


5. Ensuring individualized education programme (IEP)

IEP requires that educators, students, parents and families work together to decide on the effectiveness of a remote-learning setting and how to best proceed with each student’s education.


6. Supporting teachers

As schools transition to online learning during the COVID-19 crisis, it is important to provide teachers with guidance and relevant, evidence-based resources on how to deliver lessons in remote and online settings in special education.


7. Providing family and caregiver support

Systemic approaches are necessary to help parents and caregivers with both their domestic responsibilities and students’ education.


Collective responsibility – more work needs to be done

The abovementioned suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. It is the collective responsibility of governments, teachers, parents and caregivers to help reduce educational inequality for students with disabilities, especially during a time of crisis like the COVID-19 virus. In order to ensure that systematic, long-term solutions are provided, all factors that affect access to education, including policy, legislation, financing, human resources and data, must be explored.



1World Health Organization. (n.d.). “Disability”. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/health-topics/disability#tab=tab_1


3UNESCO. (2020). Learning never stops – tell UNESCO how you are coping with COVID-19 school closures: https://en.unesco.org/news/learning-never-stops-tell-unesco-how-you-are-coping-covid-19-school-closures-0

4UNICEF. (2020). COVID-19 response: Considerations for Children and Adults with Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/disabilities/files/COVID-19_response_considerations_for_people_with_disabilities_190320.pdf

6UNICEF. (2020). Futures of 370 million children in jeopardy as school closures deprive them of school meals – UNICEF and WFP. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/futures-370-million-children-jeopardy-school-closures-deprive-them-school-meals


8OECD. (2019). Countries must make teaching profession more financially and intellectually attractive. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/education/countries-must-make-teaching-profession-more-financially-and-intellectually-attractive.htm