Globally, more than a billion people have a disability according to the World Report on Disability. Around 1 in 10 are children and 80% of these children live in developing countries.
Last week, the Southeast Regional Office of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF hosted their final UNICEF Speaker Series of 2012. The program, entitled Access and Opportunity for All: A Conversation about Children and Disability, took place at the world-renowned Shepherd Center and gave experts and concerned Atlantans an opportunity to openly discuss the topic of disability and how it affects young people around the world.
Panelists included Resource Mobilization Specialist and Disability Focal Point for UNICEF Haiti Cara Yar Khan, Executive Director for the Elaine Clark Center Beth Schmehling-Cook, and Chairman of the Board of the Shepherd Center James H. Shepherd Jr. The audience was introduced to UNICEF’s work on disability in Haiti through a powerful video presented by Ms. Yar Khan. She narrates and appears in the video, detailing the struggles faced by people with disabilities in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. She uses her own experience of disability to help transform the way UNICEF conducts its humanitarian work to be more inclusive of disability concerns.
According to UNICEF, the experience of disability globally is often one of stigmatization and isolation as a result of misinformation. Disability discrimination often leads to reduced access to basic social services, especially education, as well as a lack of recognition of people with disabilities’ equal humanity by their families, peers and communities. Ms. Schmehling-Cook and Mr. Shepherd provided a unified voice in support of increased affordable services for people with disabilities, lamenting the inadequate and inaccessible services, especially for children in Atlanta. All three panelists agreed that human dignity through disability inclusion and awareness is of the utmost importance, followed closely by increased innovation in the research and use of aids. They spoke about the need for more funds to be spent in the early stages of urban planning and new construction to address access for all people. Early planning helps avoid the additional costs needed to refit buildings and infrastructure to better accommodate individuals with disabilities.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake has said “…wherever the poorest children are…wherever the most vulnerable children are…wherever the forgotten children are…that is where we must also be—in even greater measure.” UNICEF strives to ensure that the most vulnerable children are given the basic tools they need to not only survive, but thrive. To this end, disability awareness and inclusion, as basic human rights, guide UNICEF’s work in all of its program areas.
The next UNICEF Speaker Series hosted by the U.S. Fund for UNICEF Southeast Regional Office will be held in Atlanta in March 2013. The Elaine Clark Center enables children and young adults of all abilities to become confident and contributing citizens of the community through an innovative model of education, therapeutic play, and experiential opportunities. The Shepherd Center is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research, and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury and brain injury.