Inclusive Education: A Critical Effort During a Global Crisis

By Carrie Motamedi, posted on
Image collage of Bookshare users using different devices like headphones, laptops, tablets, and AT devices.

Betsy Beaumon, Benetech CEO, convened forty participants in tune with the challenges of inclusive education during the COVID-19 pandemic. They discussed how education will look going forward amidst massive uncertainty, and what the education community can do about it. 

To explore answers, Betsy introduced two experts: UNESCO Education Specialist, Mark West and The Raben Group’s Michael Yudin, who served as the Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education in the Obama administration. The panelists highlighted the trends, challenges and solutions to ensure that all students – especially students with learning differences or disabilities who are disproportionately impacted — have equal access to education. 

The Now Normal 

In these uncertain times, educators, students and parents have struggled to adapt to online and virtual learning overnight. In the fall, students may return in some form to school, but all of the likely scenarios will include distance learning in varying degrees in this dynamic, “now normal” mode. What should this new model look like and take into consideration? 

The three leaders shared insights on how this pandemic is the most serious global affront to the right to education in generations. They noted that a disproportionate share of learners from low-income families (an estimated 50% lack access to digital tools and reliable internet for remote learning) have been unable to exercise their right to formal education during the COVID-19-related school closures.  

These inequities in access, which mostly impact students whose families struggle economically, as well as learners with disabilities who succeed best with accommodations and dedicated in-person teachers, are likely to ripple across a student’s academic career and could affect their entire life.   

While the trend of inequities students face based on race, income, disability and geography has been magnified by the pandemic, and many learners with disabilities are losing more ground than their peers due to loss of individualized support, there has been a lot of innovation and hope. Some schools have leveraged technology in education resulting in more innovation over the past few months than in the past few decades. There are success stories and best practices to mirror. 

“We know how to ensure kids with disabilities succeed in the classroom. I think we all can start with this fundamental belief that every kid can learn. Every child should have the opportunity to learn and achieve. We have 40 plus years of research that shows us that access to high standards, access to the general curriculum makes a difference.” - Michael Yudin

Access to Education is a Public Good 

The experts agreed that there has been a high financial burden on school systems to switch quickly to a remote learning model when taking into account the cost of providing devices, supporting student access to broadband, devising online curricula, training teachers on new technologies and budget cuts. Recognizing that many remote learning solutions that schools have implemented have been conducted on private platforms, the experts posed the question of how we can build systems that will allow education to exist in a public, democratically controlled sphere. They pointed out that education has been undervalued and must be prioritized and supported with changed policies and budgets that reflect that. 

“Education is a common good for everyone in the world. The right to education is suddenly being mediated by for-profit companies. Boutique solutions will lead to privatization of education, seeing it as a private as opposed to a global good.” - Mark West

A Positive Role for Technology and Philanthropy 

Opportunities to address some of the largest inequities and challenges can be seized by using innovation, creativity and a focus on what works. Open source solutions and industry efforts that put “born accessible” inclusion first, and start with the hardest-to-reach learners, can scale with impact in meeting the needs of all.  

“We need to be thinking hard about investing in open source software and where philanthropy investments need to go. When we start talking about inclusion, that's a big word. We're big proponents of what we call born accessible. So, if you're talking about content and online learning, it really needs to be usable by everyone. Start it off that way. Don't retrofit later. Those are a couple of the areas where philanthropy has a great role in saying: we'll fund it, but it needs to fit the criteria.” - Betsy Beaumon

We Can Do This! Ways to Support Inclusive Education 

  • Build digital inclusion from the beginning, not tacked on at a later point. Consider universal design principles and use human supports and training for inclusive digital public goods. 
  • Philanthropy plays a role in reaching the most disadvantaged learners through connectivity, tools and access. 
  • Prioritize education and education funding at local and national levels 
  • Tap into the energy and frustration around racial and special education inequities. 

Listen to the full replay of this conversation  

Take action to support inclusive education: 


The 2020 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report on inclusion 

UCLA report: Is California Doing Enough to Close the School Discipline Gap? 


Sign up for Benetech’s newsletter to learn where we are making an impact around inclusion, equity, and justice, and discover opportunities for collaboration. 

The Raben Group is opening the doors of power and influence for lasting inclusive change. 


Support Our Inclusive Learning Heroes - Help more kids learn in ways that work for them.