By: Hannah Ware and Dr Nidhi Singal, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) state that “no one should be left behind”. SDG#4 on education addresses both rights to education – through access; and rights in education –  specifically acknowledging that education must be of quality. In our recent report, Inclusive Quality Education for Children with Disabilities, we argue that if children with disabilities are to be fully included in quality education we must focus on the interlinked aspects of rights, resources and research.

Hannah drawing

Here, we focus on the central importance of research in achieving these goals in relation to one of the most marginalised groups worldwide. The lack of data on disability renders children with disabilities and their experiences invisible. In turn this “impedes understanding and action”  (World Health Organization and the World Bank, 2011, p.263) Fundamentally, high quality rigorous research which captures the real lives of children with disabilities is needed to uphold and achieve human rights, as manifested in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities . We focus on four central issues in relation to research:

1. Right to be counted. Collecting data on disability in mainstream surveys and other projects is essential in getting a deeper understanding of the intersections between disability and other variables such as gender, age, and ethnicity. This knowledge is essential for framing effective non-discriminatory, disability-inclusive, policies and programming.

2. Inclusive societies should be built on inclusive knowledge. This means not having a single story about disability, but rather, paying close attention to Drawing Hindividuals’ real life experiences and cultural contexts (Singal, 2010). Academically, this means working in an interdisciplinary manner. Collaborations in the fields of health, disability studies, development and education are necessary in order to construct sophisticated questions and arguments that support better understandings of the lives of people with disabilities.

3. “Nothing about us without us” is a phrase often cited in the disability studies field reflecting the critical need for people with disabilities to have prominent voices in society and especially in research. This means that researchers should involve people with disabilities and Disabled People’s Organisations in setting agendas for research. Working in partnership also means that people with disabilities are able to ask questions rather than solely occupy the position of being researched.

4. Research as catalyst for change.  Albert and Harrison (2005), in their Messages From Research, make a very useful distinction around how researchers “should be ‘on tap’ not ‘on top’ ” (p. 8), highlighting the need for research to respond to real life issues. In addition to this ‘on tap/on top’ distinction, Singal (2017) adds the ‘on shelf’ Drawing Tapdistinction, suggesting that research left on the shelf and accessible only to a few is not worth pursuing. Researchers have an ethical obligation to ensure that the research they undertake reaches a wide breadth of stakeholders, and this means being aware of the pathways through which to get findings heard. “Good research…will not on its own change the world. It needs to be accompanied by sophisticated and strategic activism” (Swartz, 2014, p.5).

The possibilities through education are immense, with high returns both to the individual and society. Redressing the educational status of children with disabilities must be central in global efforts towards developing equitable and effective education systems – research, along with rights and resources, is critical to achieving this.


Do you want to learn more about Hannah and Nidhi’s research? You are warmly invited to their talk at the Faculty of Education, room 2S5, on February 14th 2018 from 1:00 – 2:00 pm. 



Albert, B., & Harrison, M. (2005) Messages from Research. Disability Knowledge and Research (KaR) Programme. London: DfID.

Singal, N. (2010). Doing disability research in a Southern context: challenges and possibilities. Disability & Society, 25 (4), 415-426.

Singal, N. (2017) Researching disability and education in Southern contexts: Rigour, respect and responsibility. Manuscript under review.

Swartz, L. (2014). Five challenges for disability related research in sub-Saharan Africa. African Journal of Disability, 3 (2), Art # 149, 6 pages. doi:

World Health Organization and the World Bank (2011). World report on disability 2011.  Retrieved from: 

The illustrations in this blog post have been drawn by Hannah Ware.


Hanna W

Hannah Ware is currently undertaking her PhD at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is researching the self-concept and belonging of children identified as having SEN/D learning in schools in England. She also has a Master of Education in the Management of Special Education in Developing Countries, from the University of Birmingham. Previously, she has worked in the disability and education sector in England, Myanmar and Vietnam

Nidhi SNidhi Singal is a Reader at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge and a member of the REAL Centre. She has worked extensively with children and young people with disabilities in South Asia and Africa. Her research has focused on the educational experiences of children with disabilities, the quality of teaching and learning in mainstream classrooms, and the impact of schooling on different learning outcomes. 



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