Local Knowledge is Key to Creating Globally Aware Policies in Disability-Inclusive Education

.  ​Students raise their hands to answer a class questions at the St. Louis Primary School in Kinshasa

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Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank.

By Dr. Chioma Ohajunwa

To help make the goal of inclusive education a global reality in the wake of the Education for All (EFA) pledge taken at the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, international donors, including financing institutions like the World Bank, and others have been working with  African countries to support  programs and policies in inclusive education. While not all countries have met the EFA goals yet, this approach of inclusive education being funded by international agencies has brokered limited national control over policy development process in African nations.

Within some of the more developed countries, inclusive education began with the need to integrate students with disabilities into mainstream classrooms.  Since then, inclusion has gone from being mainly focused on disability to increasing the participation of all children and reducing exclusion on a broader socio-political level. In Africa, more complexities exist. Education of girls, cultural considerations, infrastructural development, and belief systems have created further complexities to inclusive education.

Therefore, the implications for inclusive education within developing countries are different based on the context and developmental phase of a country. These types of local realities—beyond donor priorities within the inclusion context—must be considered when new policies are formulated.


Where Local Knowledge Fits

In an ongoing study that explores the definition, focus, and relevance of inclusion and the representation of local knowledge within national education policy in South Africa, Ghana, and Uganda, my colleagues and I interviewed 25 participants across the inclusive education and policy sectors to get a better understanding of their experiences within the context of policymaking in Africa.   

“Sometimes it is a bit challenging, being part of an organization that advocates for persons with disabilities, looking at what is happening on the ground. The government and the technical committee are trying to balance what their donor requires with what the people’s need are. But that is the situation we find ourselves and until we are able to stand up and then fund our own policies and implementations, we cannot get there—that is, address local policy priorities.” - Study Participant

The quote represents the views of several participants, who were concerned that government attempts to balance the interests of global funding sources and their economic power need to be balanced with local, contextual knowledge that supports sustainable inclusive outcomes. They state that the current inclusion of local knowledge and ways of understanding reality are inadequately represented within national inclusive education policies.

“There are so many communities that are quite inclusive in the way they operate, and one can learn from them. Their attitude and belief in Ubuntu, which speaks to a shared humanity, informs their actions (such as initiative to build roads to school, accessible toilets), which has made inclusion at the community level possible. Communities can also be important in the sense that they live with the failures of an unrealized inclusive education system. They can tell you what the challenges are, they can tell you what has succeeded in the past. And so, they they're not just rich sources of knowledge, but rich change agents for what is possible in society.” – Study Participant


The Value of Lived Experiences

Participants understand local knowledge as lived experiences that must inform policy making.

“For me, local or community knowledge implies a form of participatory or representative knowledge. It is me sharing knowledge of my own lived experience and it is about making sure you take that knowledge into account when you develop policy or anything else.” -Study Participant

The South African, Ghanaian, and Ugandan governments consulted widely with their local, national, regional, and global collaborators and stakeholders in the development of their inclusive education policies. Informed by those processes, inclusive education policy documents have been developed.  Notwithstanding these developments, the implementation of inclusive education has not been without challenges, as noted in this study conducted in South Africa. Challenges include resources, government priorities, political will, the knowledge gap between policies, and the contexts of policy implementation.

UNESCO and UNCRPD advocate that these educational policies should be informed by contextually relevant socio-cultural belief systems. This has been far less easy to achieve in practice within the African context.


The Critical Need for Local Context

The inclusion of local knowledge within inclusive education policy development in Africa, where local actors set the policy directives and global actors play a more supportive role, is critical. Featuring  local knowledge in policy documents encourages development of globally aware, but locally relevant policies.

One reason proposed for this insufficient inclusion of local knowledge is the placement of local knowledge within the hierarchy of knowledge systems. Local knowledge is ranked lowest when compared to scientific, professional knowledge and it is, therefore, often not regarded as important as “global” knowledge.

Aid agencies provide funding that is often critical to the implementation of policies. However, robust and relevant policies can only be developed with buy-in and ownership from the local community. Local, contextual knowledge is a valuable resource that must inform the policy document within its context.  It is the “knowledge on the ground” that carries the lived experience of persons with disabilities and their communities.


Local Leads to Reliable, Relevant, and Collaborative Outcomes

Enforcing inclusive education policy should be the result of meaningful collaboration and partnership between governments, their citizens, and various stakeholders, such as organizations of persons with disabilities, teachers, parents, and caregivers. The inclusion of local knowledge ensures this collaboration and has the potential to contribute to sustainable and inclusive education outcomes across Africa.


Dr. Chioma Ohajunwa is an advocate for inclusive disability policy and indigenous knowledge systems. She is a lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.


The IEI Research Exchange Blog Series features independent opinion pieces by authors. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions, or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.



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