Improving access, retention and learning for children with disabilities

03 March 2022 by Michelle Sandall, Girls' Education Challenge

The Girls’ Access to Education – Girls’ Education Challenge (GATE-GEC) project in Sierra Leone1 helped girls with disabilities to access and stay in school, and learn and transition with their peers. GATE-GEC used an integrated approach to working with girls with disabilities. The project focused on improving teaching and learning for all children and trained teachers to be more inclusive – especially for children with disabilities – in their teaching methods. It also provided additional, targeted support to children with disabilities, offering the elements they needed to access and participate in learning. This included study groups, adaptations in schools to make them more disability friendly and the engagement of Itinerant Teachers and Community-Based Rehabilitation Volunteers. More individualised support was also provided through Individualised Education Plans and assistive devices. Stigma around disability was also addressed through community sensitisation and campaigning, as well as national-level advocacy promoting the rights of children with disabilities.

As a result, more girls with disabilities accessed education and engaged more meaningfully with quality teaching and learning. This had a positive impact on their socialisation and wellbeing. Girls with disabilities reported they felt better supported both in school and in their communities, felt a greater sense of belonging, and felt their needs are better understood and recognised.

“Nobody can neglect [children with disabilities] in the future. If they are educated, they will become […] decision-makers too in the future.” Parent of primary school child, Moyamba

The project worked through multiple pathways to ensure children with disabilities accessed, actively participated in and felt included in their classrooms. It worked to change perceptions around disability in their communities. The project identified children with disabilities through its annual beneficiary re-verification exercise using Washington Group Questions2 and further verified the severity of disability through a screening mechanism facilitated by Humanity and Inclusion, a consortium partner within GATE-GEC, who then provided referrals for advanced assessments in a medical setting.

The project made schools more accessible for children with disabilities by providing 600 assistive devices including wheelchairs, glasses and hearing aids. These helped the children gain independence, improve their quality of life and social engagement, and improve their ability to access and better engage in their classrooms. Children spoke of the benefit of assistive devices and treatment, such as glasses and drops for eyes and ears, in enabling them to better participate in class.

A male primary school student with a disability from Kenema said,“[The] school […] has made my school more friendly for all children and I like it.”

Another child commented, “I see the blackboard very clearly when I use my glasses.”
In addition, 11 model schools were upgraded with disability-friendly physical infrastructure, with support from school authorities and communities, who helped with sourcing the building materials and construction work. Ramps had been built to support access to school buildings and toilets. One child with disability commented that the changes “[have] made my movement easy”. These efforts have motivated schools outside of the GATE-GEC project to invest in making their schools more inclusive and accessible for children with disabilities. One model school adapted other buildings to ensure that they were equally accessible for children with disabilities.

A primary school child’s parent commented, “My child is disabled and the only way he will feel part of the society is when he is [allowed] to go to school and be educated.”

To conduct the community mobilisation activities, the project trained locally selected and trusted community members as Community-Based Rehabilitation Volunteers (CBRVs). CBRVs worked within schools and communities, ensuring children with disabilities were attending school and were provided support to access schools and participate meaningfully. They also advocated on behalf of children with disabilities and other marginalised groups at the community level.

When discussing the role of the CBRVs, a primary school girl in Kailahun noted. “He usually checks on me at school, encourages me to come to school by talking to me nicely and advising me about my education.”

More importantly, the CBRVs worked actively in the community to change perceptions around persons with disabilities, mainly through discussions with family members and community sensitisation events. Children with disabilities supported by CBRVs speak of changes in perceptions of their parents and community members.

A female primary school student with a disability from Kenema said, “The community sensitisation has changed the mindset […] of people on disability issues.”

CBRVs also worked in schools, working with Itinerant Teachers, educators specialising in the education of children with disabilities. They supported the implementation of Individualised Education Plans for 329 children to identify what additional support a child needs and for the parents, caregivers and teachers to work together to ensure those needs are met. Teachers worked closely with Itinerant Teacherss and CBRVs to support the learning, social and emotional needs of children with disabilities within the project, and they received training on inclusive pedagogy and differential teaching strategies to support the individual needs of children in study groups and classrooms.

In monitoring interviews, children with disabilities stated they like the study groups due to the inclusive methods (they mention the games and activities), the support they received from the teacher, and friends in the study groups. The endline evaluation confirmed the shift in attitudes of teachers towards marginalised children, and particularly children with disabilities. Stakeholders expressed positive views on the abilities of children with disabilities and that they could understand and respond to their specific needs in the classroom. The endline evaluation reported that improved attitudes have had a positive impact on the wellbeing of children with disabilities, who feel they are better supported both in school and in their communities. They feel a greater sense of belonging, and feel their needs are better understood and recognised.

A male primary school student with a disability from Kailahun commented, “CBRVs come to see if we are treated equally.”

A female primary school student with a disability added, “The teacher pays special attention to us, the disabled children. The study group has helped me a lot more especially by improving my reading skills.”

Finally, a key area of success for GATE-GEC is its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. GATE-GEC’s followed a successful multi-pronged approach which included:

  1. Tailoring interventions for individuals: Girls’ Clubs in primary schools were facilitated by female teachers, providing social protection interventions which included food, dignity kits and school supplies to marginalised children and cash grants to VSLA groups.
  2. Targeting groups of at-risk girls: Learning resources supported remedial or accelerated learning, expanded the number of beneficiary girls to provide direct support to more marginalised children, trained staff, CBRVs, teachers and head teachers on psychological first aid and psycho-social support.
  3. Universally working with schools and communities: Positive Parenting sessions were given to VSLA groups to support parents and caregivers in supporting children’s educational and psychosocial needs.

As a result of this approach, GATE-GEC supported 99% of girls with disabilities within their project return to school after school closures.



1. GATE-GEC is led by Plan International UK and implemented by Plan International Sierra Leone and partners Action Aid, Humanity and Inclusion, and the Open University. More information is available at: