Worldwide, less than three percent of children and youth with disabilities can read. In many countries, basic education has been unavailable for this population due to systemic barriers, stigmas or lack of resources.
Joshua Josa, an inclusive education specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development, is working to change these dynamics. As USAID’s resident expert on education for learners with disabilities, he has worked with USAID missions, ministries of education and other groups around the world to design and implement programs to deliver quality, equitable and inclusive education to all children and youth.
“Education is the vector for all social development,” said Katherine Guernsey, USAID’s disability rights coordinator. “It’s the key to making sure that people can get jobs, that they can be productive members of society, and that they can participate fully in the political and public life of their countries.”
In Morocco, for example, children with disabilities are often hidden from public view as a matter of cultural practice and do not have full access to the public education system even though the country’s constitution says all children have a right to an education. Parents of children with disabilities often had to find and pay out of pocket for their children’s education beyond a basic level.
Josa, 35, began talking with officials in the Moroccan government about the challenges that deaf people face in accessing quality, equitable and inclusive basic education and subsequently collaborated with them to design several programs that are now serving thousands of young people around the country.
“Josh was really compassionate and understanding about the difficulties, but also presented a model for how to overcome those challenges,” said LeAnna Marr, an acting deputy assistant administrator at USAID. “It completely shifted the thinking in Morocco. For the first time, they established an office within the ministry of education responsible for the education of students with disabilities.”
“I had parents in Morocco tell me that as sort of a shadow effect of children learning ￼Moroccan Sign Language, they could learn alongside,” said Anna Roberts, a senior policy advisor within USAID’s Center for Education. “For some of them, it was the first time they had ever been able to meaningfully communicate with their own children.”
USAID funds and supports education programs for more than 25 million children and youth in more than 50 countries around the world through nonprofit partner organizations. Josa’s work reaches children and youth in nearly all of those countries. USAID estimates that as of 2021, at least 300,000 children and youth with disabilities were served in USAID education programming, although the true number is likely much higher as many countries are unable or unwilling to report accurately.
Josa, who is a third-generation deaf person and a first-generation Hungarian American, has drawn on his personal experiences to develop his commitment to equity and inclusion in education. But his colleagues are quick to note that his work is more than just ensuring education for deaf students.
“He focuses on all learners,” said Judith Heumann, a former special advisor for international disability rights at the State Department. “He casts a really wide net, wanting to ensure that no one is left behind.”
Josa has been instrumental in a global partnership called All Children Reading, a partnership between USAID, World Vision and the Australian government, which seeks to innovate ways to improve reading outcomes for marginalized children around the world.
Josa also has been a leader in promoting a concept called Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, within the U.S. government and with peers around the world. The underlying principle is radical inclusivity—that an educational system should be able to address the needs of all students, including those with a wide range of disabilities such as physical disabilities as well as attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, and other intellectual and learning disabilities.
“The great thing about UDL, which Josh has been championing, is that it not only serves learners with disabilities but that it’s an approach that helps all learners because no two people really learn the same way,” Guernsey said.
Last year, thanks in large part to Josa’s advocacy and development of the concept within the international context, USAID Administrator Samantha Power announced that by 2026, all USAID-funded education programs worldwide will incorporate principles of UDL into education programming, enhancing opportunities for quality, equitable and inclusive education for millions of young people around the world.
Josa looks back on his time traveling the world as a young person and remembers how far behind educational offerings were for deaf children in many countries. As a deaf education volunteer with the Peace Corps in Kenya, he recalls both the challenges deaf students faced with an inflexible education system and also their resilience in finding ways to support each other. He said these experiences served as catalysts for his passion and drive to create greater equity in education around the world.
“A lot of what I experienced in Kenya motivated me to pursue disability rights work,” Josa said. “In a span of six years, we witnessed the first 12th grade class becoming a reality for deaf students in Morocco. This shows me that just by dismantling barriers in a small part of the system, change can happen.”