‘Chantrea is very clever. He always completes his assignments and because of his active involvement in the classroom, we made him chief of the class. He really is a good role model for others.”
These are the words of Chantrea’s physics teacher. Thirteen-year-old Chantrea, who is in grade 7 at lower secondary school in Stung Treng, has a form of muscular dystrophy, yet because his parents and teachers focussed on his potential rather than his physical impairment, he is thriving.
Children with disabilities and their communities benefit if society focuses on what children can achieve, rather than what they cannot.
This is the central message in the latest UNICEF State of the World’s Children report, which lays out how societies can include children with disabilities.
For many children with disabilities, exclusion begins in the first days of life with their birth going unregistered. If they are poor, they are among the least likely to receive health care or attend school and they are more vulnerable to violence, abuse, exploitation, neglect and negative name-calling.
Gender is another key factor in marginalisation as girls with disabilities are less likely than boys to receive food and care.
A child does not have a disability because they find it difficult to see, learn, walk or hear. Disability is when physical, social and legal barriers prevent a child with impairments from taking part in the life of the community on an equal basis.
Every stair is an obstacle for children with physical impairments to enter and exit a school, pagoda or health centre.
If infrastructure access was included at the planning and design stage, the World Bank estimates that the additional building costs would be lower than 1 per cent. That is a lot less than adding ramps, hand-rails and adequate toilet facilities to buildings after construction.
UNICEF recognises that special efforts have to be made to secure respect for and protection of the rights of children with disabilities. We must all be proactive to ensure that all children, including those with disabilities, can participate in their communities and enjoy their rights.
Inclusive education, for example, broadens the horizons of all children. When teachers are equipped with the appropriate knowledge to teach children with disabilities, and schools provide the right infrastructure, communication and technology, children with disabilities have the opportunity to fulfill their ambitions and reach their potential.
In Cambodia, progress is being made toward the inclusion of children with disabilities, albeit slowly and unevenly. Inclusive primary education has gradually expanded from one province in 2000 to 15 provinces today.
However, delivering “Education for All” in Cambodia, so that every child with a disability has access to quality education, cannot be achieved with a “quick fix”.
It requires targeted interventions and strategies that are well-budgeted with timelines for implementation.
Cambodia is to be commended for its ratification in December 2012 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The State of the World’s Children report urges all governments to meet the legal obligations of the convention by ensuring that policies are enforced and monitored, budgets assigned and administrative measures applied for quality services for all children with disabilities; and support provided to families and communities so they can meet the demands of caring for their children with disabilities.
The agenda for further action outlined in The State of the World’s Children report includes the need to obtain accurate data on the number of children with disabilities, what disabilities they have and how disabilities affect their lives.
Cambodia, like many other governments, has no dependable guide for allocating resources to assist children with disabilities and their families.
A concerted research agenda on disability by national and international agencies would generate data and analysis to guide planning and resource allocation.
Finally, it is important to involve children and adolescents, like Chantrea, by consulting them on the design and evaluation of programs and services for them. Physical barriers can be dissolved with strong government leadership and clear legislation for buildings and transportation.
Social barriers also need government commitment to fight discrimination among the general public, decision-makers and providers of essential services such as schooling and health care.
Efforts to support the integration of children with disabilities help tackle the discrimination that pushes them further into the margins of society. Each of us must also actively break down the barriers.
We must learn to see the child before their disability, otherwise it deprives society of all that child has to offer.
When children with disabilities gain, a country is enriched.
Rana Flowers is the UNICEF Representative in Cambodia.