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Published on 02 December 2011
By Maria Attard, Policy & Program Development Coordinator, ChildFund Australia
3 December is the International Day of People with Disability, which this year is focusing on disability and development.
People with disabilities are a voiceless community – they are seen as a burden on society, particularly in developing countries. In the countries where ChildFund works, it’s very much a charity-based culture, so people with disabilities depend on handouts and don’t know what their rights are.
We need to start looking at these people as having rights and not as charity cases. It’s their right to have access to everything other children and adults have. We also have to realise every person is a whole person the way they are. It’s the systems and organisations around them that create the disability.
Disability traps children in a cycle of poverty. They’re invisible members of society. They can’t go to school, they can’t work – so they’re seen as a burden with nothing to contribute. It’s not just a medical but a social issue. Take, for example, a child in Cambodia who can’t see and therefore can’t go to school. It’s not the child’s fault. The child is not going to school because the school and the wider community aren’t catering for the child. So it’s the environment that’s creating the disability, not the child.
The World Health Organisation says about five per cent of children worldwide (93 million) have a moderate disability, while 0.7 per cent (13 million) have a severe disability. The rates of disability are higher in developing countries but some people are surprised to know almost 20% of Australians have a disability. So with all those statistics in mind, it’s a significant proportion of people we’re talking about – not just in developing countries but in Australia.
One of the ideologies behind the Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities is to encourage disabled people’s organisations to advocate for themselves. So that’s one piece of the puzzle – turning a voiceless child to having a voice. It’s also about access. We need to break down the barriers for people with disabilities. Whether somebody has a physical or mental disability, the access point will be how we break the barriers down for them. For example, in a lot of the countries where we work, people with a hearing impairment don’t have their own sign language. They have the ability to communicate but they need the language skills. So we’ve got to create environments in which they can learn those skills and be heard.
The ChildFund Alliance recently conducted a disability survey across all of the countries where ChildFund works to determine how we are currently including children with disabilities in our work and how we can improve. At ChildFund Australia, we already have a disability policy and there’s some positive work happening across the Alliance but we need to continue our shift towards a right-based approach.
It is important to remember that it's the environment that creates the disability – we are the disabling factor, not the people with disabilities. And we need to start viewing people with disabilities as having rights – they’re not charity cases or people who need to be fixed. It’s up to us to change our views if we are to move forward.
ChildFund Australia is a partner of the End the Cycle campaign, a community awareness initiative promoting the human rights and empowerment of people with disabilities living in the world’s poorest countries.