Sir Roger Moore

A matter of right: Reaching children with disabilities in urban areas

On a recent visit for UNICEF, I met one-year-old twins Irina and Serezha at a baby home in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s most populous city. Placed in the home when their parents were unable to care for them, these two children face a very uncertain future. Irina is partly blind and her brother has a form of paralysis that might leave him unable to walk without help. Since both children live with disabilities, and twins cannot be adopted separately, the likelihood is slim that they will be brought into a loving home environment.

Children like Irina and Serezha are among the most vulnerable of urban dwellers. Studies indicate that those with disabilities are the most systematically excluded in cities throughout the world. These children are at added risk of being abandoned, abused and neglected. They are also among the most likely to be deprived of schooling, basic health care, proper nutrition and clean water. Girls in particular are more likely to be victims of violence and rape.

Irina and Serezha are far from alone. Around the world, an estimated 200 million people younger than 18 live with mental or physical disabilities – 80 per cent of them in developing countries and many of them in cities. Children from poor and marginalized households – especially those with disabilities – are frequently the hardest to reach, not only in remote rural areas but also in densely populated cities. When such children are unrepresented in official data, they often go unseen by local authorities and are excluded from even the most basic services.

This must – and can – change.

Upholding the rights of children with disabilities is a legal imperative under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It is also our collective moral obligation to our fellow human beings.

We need an accurate picture of the prevalence and types of disability with which children live and the ways in which these disabilities affect their activities and prospects. To get this picture, better data are crucial. Better data can make efforts to save and improve children’s lives more effective.

Legislative measures must be put in place to help ensure that all children have access to basic care, education and development programmes regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional or linguistic conditions. Urban planners must look at issues such as access to transportation, buildings and public spaces. A change as simple as adding an entrance ramp at a city school will help those who use wheelchairs to reach classrooms – and, later, what they learned in those classrooms can help them obtain higher-paying jobs and independent lives.

More broadly, we need policies that help parents to seize the opportunities of urban life, cope with its pressures and care for their children. Make no mistake, cities present opportunities as well as challenges. Just as we find high concentrations of disabled children in cities, for example, so we also find schools and services devoted to them. The task is to expand and improve such opportunities.

All this comes to mind when I think of Irina and Serezha. For their sake, and for the sake of millions more like them, the world must act collectively and urgently to help ensure that children with disabilities are given special attention – and equal rights.

Sir Roger Moore has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for over 20 years. He visited Kazakhstan with his wife, Lady Kristina, in November 2010 to help raise awareness and support for vulnerable children, particularly those with disabilities.

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