Kids with disabilities and their communities would benefit if society focused on what these children can achieve, instead of what they can't, says UNICEF'S report The State of the World's Children 2013: Children with Disabilities. While this isn't a news flash if you are a parent of a kid with special needs, it is something many of us grapple with, day in and day out. As executive director Anthony Lake says, "When you see the disability before the child, it is not only wrong for the child, but it deprives society of all that child has to offer. Their loss is society's loss; their gain is society's gain."
The information on the welfare of kids with special needs around the world is shocking but, sadly, not surprising: "Children with disabilities are often regarded as inferior, and this exposes them to increased vulnerability," the report states. Children with disabilities are the least likely to receive health care or go to school, and are among the most vulnerable to violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect. In some countries, mothers aren't encouraged to breastfeed kids with disabilities. In some countries, kids with disabilities are forced to use separate restroom facilities out of age-old fears they mat "contaminate" them.
In the United States, parents of kids with disabilities have access to resources and therapies that people in less advanced parts of the world lack. And yet, we also battle forms of discrimination and prejudice toward our kids. The mindsets can seem as if people are living in a developing country, and that's the root of the problem. "Little will change in the lives of children with disabilities unless attitudes change," the report notes, and goes on to say that inclusion in education, sports and other activities is a key way to reduce discrimination, make people aware of a person's abilities and counter stereotypes.
The action steps the report lays out include making sure all countries ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and honoring its practices; setting up clear-cut legal entitlement to protection from discrimination; facilitating access to all children's environments—schools, health facilities, public transportation—to allow those with disabilities to live life alongside their peers; and increasing support for families that have kids with special needs and early intervention programs.
"Somewhere, a child is being told that he cannot play because he cannot walk, or another that she cannot learn because she cannot see," said UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake. "That boy deserves a chance to play. And we all benefit when that girl, and all children, can read, learn and contribute. The path forward will be challenging. But children do not accept unnecessary limits. Neither should we."
Parents of kids with special needs certainly don't accept limits. We know what our kids are capable of, and we want—no, we ache—for others to understand that just like any children, ours have potential, too. At school, the park, the playground, the birthday party, we encourage people to see the unique traits and personalities our kids have, just like any children do. The wheelchair, the foot braces, the speech, the shape of their eyes are not our kids' defining characteristics. Who they are is.
It takes government, school and community guidance, programs and interventions to make the world better for kids with disabilities. One person at a time, though, we parents can help change perceptions.