In May 2013, UNICEF published its latest report on ‘The State of the World’s Children’, which this year focused on children with disabilities. Based on statistical evidence from around the world, the report combines an analysis of the current situation and an agenda for action. It also includes several unique ‘perspective’ articles, from individuals with a range of experiences on this issue.
Although the report acknowledges that there has been some improvement for many children with disabilities and their families, it seeks to emphasise that progress has been varied between and within countries. As of February 2013, 193 countries had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and 127 countries and the European Union had ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) ; but “ratification alone will not be enough”.
The predominant trend in most countries has been to try and bring children with disabilities into the pre-existing institutional frameworks, as a way of integrating them into society; for example, in education by admitting them to ‘regular’ schools. However, in many cases this has only reinforced the marginalisation and discrimination of vulnerable children in their communities. Efforts have not been made to adapt these establishments in such a way that these children can fully participate. A review of the situation of children with intellectual disabilities in 22 European countries revealed that regular teachers lacked training to work with children with disabilities. The UNICEF report also cites a 2007 UK study involving children with special educational needs, in which 55% said that they had been treated unfairly because of their disability. In other words, integration does not automatically mean inclusion.
Children with disabilities face many physical, civic and social barriers in their everyday lives, which may vary in size and severity depending on cultures. With this report, UNICEF aims to challenge current charitable approaches that regard children with disabilities as “passive recipients of care and protection”, choosing instead to elevate them to their rightful status as “full members of society”. The report urges policy makers to change entrenched attitudes towards children with disabilities and start engaging with them not only as beneficiaries, but as “agents of change”, in order to break down the barriers they face. One way UNICEF suggests this can be achieved is through more public campaigns to raise awareness of children with disabilities.
UNICEF has compiled a set of recommendations, which could be adopted by countries who have already taken steps to ratify the Conventions. UNICEF encourages national governments to coordinate with local authorities, employers, associations and other service providers to help fight discrimination; dismantle barriers to inclusion; end institutionalization; support families; move beyond minimum standards; coordinate services to support the child; and to involve children with disabilities in making decisions.
The report particularly highlights the need for states to provide more financial, physical and emotional support to families, given that an inability to cope can often leave parents with no choice other than to abandon their children in institutions. Fear of discrimination and social exclusion can also lead to parents keeping their children invisible, thus denying them access to the care and education they need. This issue of ‘invisibility’ is further compounded by the debilitating lack of rigorous data and information on child disability. Consequently, UNICEF is calling for a greater, global effort to produce estimates that are reliable, valid and internationally comparable, which would facilitate “appropriate policy and programmatic responses” by governments and their international partners.