Northern scholarship has long dominated the policy discourse on disability-inclusive education. The continued absence of Southern scholarship and overreliance of evidence and perspectives from the North is impeding contextual understanding and action on disability-inclusive education. While the lack of robust evidence is a concern, in parallel, there is an increasing acknowledgment that researchers based in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have limited opportunities to undertake, engage and publish their own research. This impedes their ability to contribute meaningfully to the disability-inclusive education agenda, both at a national and international level.
UN Sustainable Development Goal 17.9 makes a clear case for effective and targeted North-South and South-South collaboration- as does the research. A recent systematic analysis of research on disability-inclusive education from 14 sub-Saharan African countries highlights that the research from the region is patchy at best, with certain countries, such as Kenya, Botswana, and Uganda dominating research produced within the region. Furthermore, most of the research studies are conducted in collaboration with Northern-based organizations, many of them having limited to no role for sub-Saharan-based academics.
The World Bank’s Inclusive Education Initiative (IEI), in partnership with CaNDER- University of Cambridge, University of Gondar, and Kathmandu University collaborated to better understand and close the gap of unequal North-South academic partnerships in disability-inclusive education. The IEI hosted the Research Exchange Workshop Series (from June to September 2021) which brought together 59 researchers from 20 countries across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia with a purpose to identify research priorities and to create a space to better understand the challenges that sub-Saharan Africa and South Asian scholars are facing as they conduct research and publish their work on disability-inclusive education. The forum also identified the enablers within the research community which can be leveraged.
So, what did we learn? Here are the 4-key take-aways.
1. North-South Academic Partnerships are unequal
Researchers from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia reflected on unequal power dynamics between them and their Northern-based counterparts, including research priorities and criteria often being set by Northern counterparts. Furthermore, Southern-based academics are often tasked with doing the legwork such as data collection, cleaning, and analysis, only for the Northern scholars to take over when it comes to writing and publishing. The unequal partnerships also play out in funding and securing financing for research. Funding for disability-inclusion research is extremely competitive, very hard to come by and isn’t consistent or reliable. Hence, the incentives to conduct research on disability-inclusive education are few.
There is a lack of strong South-South research communities, whether to learn from or to collaborate with other researchers. Researchers must rely on colleagues, personal connections, outside of the region for collaboration. Without external collaboration, the accrual of regional knowledge often stagnates.
“I had to fund my own research”. – Participant from East and Southern Africa, Workshop #1
2. Contextualized research at national and local levels
There is a strong need to decolonize perspectives on inclusive education by involving local stakeholders in research, to ensure that their voices, especially those of children with disabilities, their parents and teachers, are incorporated into research. Not only does this prove to be a rich source of data but also ensures that accurate lived experiences are being represented.
The need for longitudinal studies was unanimous. Researchers felt that often studies are limited in their time frame and hence produce limited insights. Longitudinal studies are key to addressing gaps in the system and creating lasting solutions.
More research needs to be done in the classroom, including focusing on the curriculum being taught- it’s inclusivity, and how to support teachers and train them to adopt a range of inclusive pedagogical strategies.
“There are no long-term and short-term goals for disability research formulated regionally (and nationally). There is research happening, but we are not building up on each other’s work which is essential for contextual knowledge building on disability and education”. - Participant from South Asia, Workshop #3
3. Research must be participatory
A strong need for diversity in research design and methodologies was emphasized. A strong case was made for mixed methods research, with scholars arguing that when it comes to capturing experiences of persons with disabilities, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Numeric data alone was found to shut out minorities and their voices. However, the challenge with mixed methods is often the additional funding and time required. Given the intricacies of the issues, qualitative research is perceived to provide more robust and nuanced findings. There was an agreement that quantitative research is deemed as the gold standard and is the most accepted type of data to inform policy recommendations and budget allocation, which needs to be challenged.
Auto ethnographic, action, participatory, and emancipatory research were highly recommended by all groups. Researchers also pushed for narrative inquiry, allowing for more storytelling and for participants to represent their narratives.
“With quantitative research, a lot of voices of children, parents, and community) get silenced. Qualitative aspects of storytelling, narrative and participatory research allows for bringing-in stakeholder voices which allows for the creation of a very holistic picture of the challenges around education as well as the opportunities available.” – participant from West and Central Africa, Workshop #2
4. Platforms to collaborate, share and disseminate research
Researchers highlighted the need to promote access to research findings and recommendations using established networks and groups, including journals and newsletters. The need to have more opportunities for researchers to present their work within the region, rather than relying on Northern-based conferences, was also highlighted. Further, support for researchers to collaborate with their regional peers and for research to focus on implementation, evaluation, and monitoring was an important opportunity which they felt needed to be strengthened.