Zahir Siddique

June 2020
A man talking at an event.

Zahir Siddique is the country representative for Leonard Cheshire, managing the Inclusive Futures initiative in Bangladesh – a programme giving 225 children with disabilities access to primary school education for the first time.

Here, he tells us about his lifetime working to improve access to education in Bangladesh, what drives him to succeed, and why it is vital to improve educational opportunities for children with disabilities.

I have worked in education and development for thirty years

In most cases, I’ve found that people with severe or multiple disabilities are excluded. Usually, partners implementing projects on the ground find it too challenging to include them as a target audience or beneficiary.

The Inclusive Futures initiative specifically targets children with severe or multiple disabilities. This is a really big shift in emphasis. It is the first project I have been involved with to put the educational rights of children with disabilities at the heart of its operations.

Before joining Leonard Cheshire, I worked with Mott MacDonald for six years as a deputy team leader for a UK department for an international development-funded educational project, training teachers. I spent a further 13 years with the Canadian International Development Agency, working on literacy-based projects. I have also held roles with ActionAid and BRAC, leading educational development projects across Bangladesh.

I really understand the big difference that literacy and education make

They offer many opportunities for children born into poverty and with a disability.

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Out of its population of 168 million people it is estimated that 15 million have a disability.

People with disabilities are the most deprived members of Bangladeshi society.  Social stigma remains the biggest cause of discrimination and the main reason it has taken so long to develop an inclusive education policy.

Awareness has grown in recent years, that children with disabilities endure extensive prejudice and discrimination. Children with disabilities are very unlikely to go to school, and face immense barriers and exclusion in all areas of their lives. Around 1.6 million children with disabilities of primary school age live in Bangladesh, and very few have access to education.

If we are to achieve progress and create an inclusive future, we must address inclusion at the earliest point in education.

Many of the strongest advocates for children with disabilities are parents and family

They see the potential and ability in their child when others cannot.

When children are given access to education and they’re empowered to develop skills, they become contributing members of their community rather than being perceived as a burden. This helps tackle the underlying stigma and transform attitudes.

Leonard Cheshire leads the inclusive education component under Inclusive Futures

A central objective of the project is to increase awareness of children with disabilities’ worth and rights. It is vital to educate parents, community guardians and local government officials to ensure change is lasting. I have seen how effective grassroots awareness raising is in shifting people’s mindsets and expectations.

Over three years, Leonard Cheshire will give 225 children with disabilities the opportunity to attend two full years at primary school. This is the largest ever disability-inclusive education programme in Bangladesh and marks the inauguration of disability-inclusive education in each participating school. In its first three years, 45 primary schools across three sub districts will take part in this brand new initiative.

I am excited about working with our partners on such a pioneering assignment.

COVID-19 has placed many families into the same situation as the parents of children with disabilities – housebound, with no access to school or digital connectivity to continue education

Schools in Bangladesh closed in March 2020 as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic. In a low-income country, the classroom is the door to opportunity and the starting point for breaking cycles of poverty and exclusion. Due to the temporary closure of schools, the project will now enrol its first pupils in January 2021.

In Bangladesh, the school year runs from January through to December. It is important to enrol all children together at the start of the school year to maximise inclusivity. All children benefiting from Inclusive Futures will experience two complete school years of education in a mainstream school environment.

My sincere hope is for children with disabilities to experience education, gain skills to help them throughout life and achieve personal growth

I also hope their education will one day help them into formal employment and a wider acceptance in society. Nothing will change overnight. It may be challenging but I believe one day it will happen. We will be able to influence the government to adopt policies supportive to people with disabilities. Projects like Inclusive Futures provide important evidence about how best to design future inclusive and accessible education policy.

We need to start advocacy from the local level. Gradually, it moves towards a national level and finally, global

Disability inclusion means equal and equitable access of people with disabilities –everywhere and for any purposes.

The global wellbeing of the majority of people with disabilities has not improved in the past 20 years. Removing the barriers to school exclusion for Bangladesh’s children with disabilities is a significant challenge, but critical to ensuring a rights-based approach to development and breaking negative cycles of marginalisation.

Providing access to primary education is the most important starting point for improving the life chances of children with disabilities. Through education, they will start to overcome the multiple exclusions, institutional barriers and widespread social stigma they face throughout their lifetime.

What we do

Our education programme in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Nepal and Bangladesh is helping to make learning more accessible for all children with disabilities.

Find out more about the people delivering Inclusive Futures

Our people