#Article (Archive)

Moving to action

Jun 20, 2012, 4:48 PM

Moving to Action: Respecting, Promoting, Protecting and Fulfilling the Rights of Child with Disabilities

The theme for this year’s Day of the African Child, ‘The Rights of Children with Disabilities: the Duty to Protect, Respect, Promote and Fulfill’, demands all of us, at all levels, to reflect on our attitudes and practices towards children with disabilities and to audit the laws, policies and institutions we have put in place to ameliorate or make better their lives. It further behoves us to institute all necessary measures that would lead to their enjoyment of fundamental human rights, guaranteed in national, regional and international legal instruments and declarations.

The conditions of children with disabilities in The Gambia is all but enviable, an indictment of our collective conscience and professed love and concern for the most vulnerable. No one can gainsay the fact that children with disabilities face constant discrimination and exclusion which have led to the denial and violation of their basic human rights. They often live on the margins of society, deprived of some of life’s fundamental experiences. They are often condemned to a ’poor start in life’ and deprived of opportunities to develop to their full potential and to participate in society. They have limited opportunities for early, primary and secondary education, or life-skills and vocational training, or both, that are available to other children. They either have no voice or their views are discounted.

All these factors exacerbate the exclusion and isolation of children with disabilities as they prepare for adult life.

Children with disabilities, due to the powerlessness, social isolation and highly ingrained cultural prejudices they face and the emotional, economic, physical and social demands they can place on their carers, are highly vulnerable to abuse, violence and exploitation, especially physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Their disability makes them ‘easy victims’ not just because they would find it difficult to defend themselves or report the abuse, but also because they are often not believed when they report the abuse.

It is estimated that round 90 per cent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school. Evidently, society places lower premium on the education of children with disabilities. Yet we know that  education offers one of the most effective means to break the cycle of poverty that all too often overtakes children with disabilities and their families.

If it is only through education that children with disabilities will acquire the skills necessary to reach their full potentials, both as individuals and citizens, then it would be necessary for the Government to make education free for both boys and girls with disabilities. Parents who feel stretched to the limit in meeting the physical needs of their child with disability will be very reluctant to send their child with disability to school since they are also made to accept that educating such a child has less benefit

It is now understood that the challenges and obstacles that children with disabilities face does not stem from the disability itself but from  “a combination of social, cultural, attitudinal and physical barriers” that they encounter in their daily lives. These barriers prevent them from accessing basic social services and developing to their fullest potentials. Society must adapt its structures to ensure that all children, irrespective of age, gender and disability, can enjoy the human rights that are inherent to their human dignity without discrimination of any kind.

What we need to do is to change the society to fit the condition of the child with disability and not the child to suit society. We must begin to reform our laws and structures and remove barriers to the participation of children with disabilities as full members of their communities. The first step towards an inclusion society will be our signing and ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which entered into force in 2008 and consequently its domestication.

We need to enhance the capacity of service providers in the legal, law enforcement, correctional and health systems to be able to understand disability concerns. Without such a capacity, they would not be able to effectively and efficiently work with children with disabilities or support and protect their rights. If the Police Child Welfare Unit does not know how to support a child with disability who is in conflict or contact with the law, the rights of that child may not be adequately respected, promoted or protected.

If the health center, clinic or hospital does not have a sign language interpreter, the nurse or doctor may not understand the medical condition of the child with hearing difficulties and the possibility of an inappropriate diagnosis cannot be ruled out. If the courts do not have a sign language interpreter, they may not be able to dispense justice as they would want to in the case of a child with hearing difficulties because his or her testimonies may be misinterpreted or misunderstood.

Much progress has been registered in our education system. However, our efforts towards ‘inclusive’ education is rather slow and discouraging. What I have observed in our education system is the placement of children with disabilities in regular schools without necessarily making any adjustments to the school organization and culture or teaching methods.

Even the tools we provide for games and other recreational activities, as well as the structural designs of our facilities do not take into consideration the needs of children with other physical characteristics.  We also have ‘special schools’ for the education of children with ‘special education needs’ although these schools are largely found in the Kanifing Municipality. While I accept the ‘difficulties’ involved in realising ‘inclusive education’, keeping children with disabilities in ‘special schools’ will deny non-disabled children the experience of growing up in an environment where diversity is the norm rather than the exception.

Our education system should be able to provide for and accommodate this diversity within a barrier-free and child-focused learning environment, and not be guided by the ‘separate but equal’ philosophy which is found to be segregation; otherwise children with disabilities will continue to be marginalized and excluded.

Our schools should adapt and provide the needed support to ensure that all children work and learn together. To be able to achieve ‘inclusive’ education, teachers, the key resource in the learning environment, should be provided pre-service and in-service training and continual support to become leaders and pacesetters in its success. 

While most teachers in ‘normal schools’ may think they do not have the skills and abilities to meet all the needs of children with disabilities, what I think they lack is confidence, not competence. They already possess the skills all competent teachers have to support children with disabilities which include “the ability to assess pupils’ strengths and needs; the skill to individualize teaching procedures to suit a wide range of abilities; the flexibility to adapt the content of subject matter to pupils’ interests and abilities and ensure its relevance to the social and cultural context; a working partnership with parents; and teamwork within the school and with outside professionals, linking with other learning environments for reinforcement.”

Certainly, teachers should be able to call on specialist help from other teachers with experience of teaching children with disabilities, particularly children with sensory or intellectual impairments. Ultimately though, every teacher should be able to have the skills and confidence to assume some elements of a specialist role themselves.

Most of our public buildings, shopping areas, recreational facilities, public transportation and other facilities are physically inaccessible to children with disabilities, and thus markedly compromising or limiting their access to the services they provide. We should set out appropriate policies and procedures to make public buildings and transportation easily accessible to children with disabilities.

It would not be out of place to suggest that existing public buildings, including schools, health facilities, governmental buildings, shopping areas, that do not comply with specification for access of persons with disabilities should undergo necessary alterations that make them as accessible as possible.

Information, it is averred, is power. And the radio, newspaper and television are very important sources of information. Access to information and means of communication enables children with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life. I do not know how our newspapers and television are contributing to the realisation of that right to information.

The Gambia television should have a sign language interpreter who would relay the news to those who are hard of hearing. Newspaper should ensure that people who are visually impaired know about important happenings in our society. Access to information is a matter of human rights, for those who lack it cannot take an active part in the way they are governed.

As regards entry into the workforce for young persons with disabilities who have reached the age of access to employment, we should introduce legislation and regulations that require employers to reserve a certain quota of jobs for persons with disabilities. Employers can be further required to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that the workplace is adapted to the needs of workers with disabilities. Government can back this legislation with appropriate incentives such as tax rebates for companies and institutions that are seen to be positively targeting persons with disability.

Disability cannot be considered in isolation. It cuts across all aspects of a child’s life and can have very different implications at different stages in a child’s life cycle. Thus actors at all levels ? from the national to the local? should include children with disabilities in all their programmes and projects and to ensure that no child is left out. This fundamental principle of inclusive planning was recognized by former President of the World Bank James Wolfensohn:

“If development is about bringing excluded people into society, then disabled people belong in schools, legislatures, at work, on buses, at the theatre and everywhere else that those who are not disabled take for granted. Unless disabled people are brought into the development mainstream, it will be impossible to cut poverty in half by 2015 or to give every girl and boy the chance to achieve a primary education by the same date goals agreed by more than 180 world leaders at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September 2000.”

I could hear the reader arguing that inclusive education is very expensive and the ‘ground’ is not yet prepared for it; current public buildings and facilities cannot be modified to make them physically accessible to children with disabilities.......

It must be noted that protecting and fulfilling the rights of children with disabilities is not an option, a question of favour or one that should be based on charity or good will. It is a matter of social justice, an integral element of them expression and realization of universal human rights and an essential investment in the future of society. Certainly no mother, father or sibling of a child with disability would condone the idea, even slightly that we can defer the fulfillment of the rights of such children simply because it will be expensive or difficult to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of the disabled.

Like all other children, children with disabilities are entitled to benefit from special protection and assistance, to be informed about their rights in an accessible and active manner, to develop their personality, abilities and talents to their fullest potential and to grow up in an environment of happiness, love and understanding.

The enjoyment of human rights by children with disabilities can be fully realized only in an inclusive society, that is, a society in which there are no barriers to a child’s full participation, and in which all children’s abilities, skills and potential are given full expression. It is worth remembering the words of Peter Coleridge in his study “Disability, Liberation and Development” when wrote that disability is “a major feature of life and can affect anybody at any time. Disability is not a separate issue from which we can choose to remain detached.”