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Creating inclusive societies for children with disabilities

5th National Early Childhood Intervention Conference:
ULU KINTA PERAK, 4 June 2014

Opening Remarks
UNICEF Representative to Malaysia
Special Representative to Brunei

It is an honour to be here at the 5th National Early Childhood Intervention Conference. The theme for this year’s conference, ‘Passion 'has 'no' parameters’, is especially compelling, as it perfectly captures what drives so many of us who work with children with disabilities.

Passion is what motivates parents, caregivers, advocates, policymakers and service providers like yourselves to continue championing the rights of children with disabilities and giving them a voice. In fact, it is the children themselves who teach us the value of passion.

I am constantly amazed, as well as humbled, by the energy and resilience displayed by children with disabilities, who time and again -- show us and remind us of their extraordinary abilities and tireless determination.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child reaffirms this spirit in Article 23, which holds governments to the promise that children with disabilities not be denied any rights based on their disability. They have the right to special care and support, to be treated with dignity, to participate in their community, and to live full and independent lives.

It has been twenty five years since the CRC was adopted by the UN General Assembly. Today, the spirit of Article 23 remains unwavering.

Realising the rights of children with disabilities begins with creating an inclusive society. And we are guided to do that by the principles of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Unfortunately, we know only too well that stigma and discrimination remain the biggest barriers standing between children with disabilities and their chance to reach their full potential.

Stigma subjects them to pity, shame, humiliation, and worse -- bullying, violence and abuse.

Discrimination, sometimes willful, sometimes inherent – renders them invisible from policies, services, basic rights and equal opportunities.

No one group has their rights compromised more consistently or more cruelly than children with disabilities.

In fact…

§ A review of 14 developing countries found that people with disabilities were more likely to experience poverty than their peers.

§ Children with disabilities aged 6-17 years are significantly less likely to be enrolled in school.

§ Globally children with disabilities are up to three to four times more likely to be subjected to violence than other children.

But that -- as you know -- is not all.

Left off birth registers and hidden behind closed doors, shut away in institutions and stigmatized, millions of children with disabilities are, too often, over-looked and under -estimated.


They’re not only excluded, they’re forgotten.

It is indeed a tragic irony that children who so often stand out because of their disability– who are so often targeted because of their disability– subject to teasing, stigma, humiliation, violence – are too often INVISIBLE when it comes to policies, services and compassion.

To better serve them, we need to know who they are, where they are, what their needs and aspirations are and how their abilities can best be nurtured right from the very beginning, in their early years.

As of the end of the year 2012, there were just over 445-thousand people with disabilities registered with Malaysia’s Department of Social Welfare, (including nearly 30,000 newly registered children with disabilities).  This represents approximately 1.6 per cent of the country’s population. And, statistics from the Ministry of Education indicate that children with disabilities represent roughly one per cent of Malaysian children in government schools.

How do we establish an inclusive society for these children?

The pillars of what an inclusive society looks like in this case, were articulated in the 2013 issue of UNICEF’s flagship publication, called the State of the World’s Children -- which focused on children with disabilities.

That global report brought attention to what is actually OUR blind spot – as we reminded ourselves that we need to see the child, before the disability.

The report called for a fundamental change in the way children with disabilities are viewed and treated, and urged all of us to focus on the abilities of these children – rather than on what they cannot do.

So what does an inclusive approach look like? When it comes to health, it means extending equal rights to children with disabilities – that means, equal rights to health care, to immunisation, equal rights to things like proper nutrition, to treatment for childhood ailments and injuries, to information and services on sexual and reproductive health, as well as basic services like access to clean toilets and sanitation facilities.

The second pillar is inclusive education, which means more than only school enrolment for children with disabilities. All children should have meaningful learning opportunities within the regular school system, including tailored support for individual students. In this regard, UNICEF would like to commend the Ministry of Education for the amendments to the Education Regulations (Special Education) in 2013.The amendments are significant as the clause that categorised children with special needs as “educable” and “uneducable” has been removed from the regulations. This is a recognition that all children are educable, when they are given the opportunity and an appropriate environment.

Children themselves should be given the opportunity to articulate what they want in a learning environment. Appropriate learning opportunities can help children with disabilities to develop their full potential, seek, employment and to improve their health.

Research has shown that children with special needs improve their communication and social skills when placed in mainstream, school settings, and improve in other academic areas as well.

Equally important to note, is that research has also shown that children who have classmates with special needs, grow up to be more accepting of people with different needs.

Children who mentor special needs friends are likely to better master their own academic work, and show improved self-esteem.

In short, Inclusive Education is seen to benefit all students, not just those with special needs.

Efforts have clearly been made in Malaysia.

In 2008, the Government has enacted the Persons with Disabilities Act, which provides social support services in areas such as health, rehabilitation and education for children with disabilities, guided by the National Policy for Persons with/Disabilities and the National Plan of Action for Persons with Disabilities.

That said, critical issues remain – including things like access to services, participation as well as the stigma and discrimination we mentioned earlier.

With these issues in mind, UNICEF Malaysia initiated a number of activities on children with disabilities in 2013, in conjunction with the launch of the global State of the World’s children (SOWC) report on children with disabilities and in conjunction with the 5th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The objective was to strengthen public understanding of the issues, as well as provide various platforms for children and youth with disabilities to share their views and to showcase their abilities.

One of the key activities was a Roundtable Policy Dialogue with Government, NGOs, the private sector, UN agencies, disability advocates – and it included a Media Workshop, to raise the awareness of journalists on how they report on these issues.

We also presented our 'Mapping Study on the Policies, Programmes, Interventions and Stakeholders for Children with Disabilities in Malaysia, 'which highlighted the challenges faced in achieving full realisation of children’s rights.

The Roundtable dialogues emphasized the need for a continuum of care for a child with disabilities, so that his or her transition into adulthood and independent living can be facilitated and monitored.

To help children with and without/disabilities to better understand the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the UNICEF Malaysia team also printed and translated a child-friendly booklet titled “It’s About Ability”. It’s available in Bahasa Malaysia and in Braille.

And we did some awareness raising with the general public -- thanks to some work we did with our excellent media partners.

The highlight was the #disable2enable digital campaign, which featured empowering video stories of children and youth with disabilities in Malaysia. The campaign, which encouraged netizens to share the videos and take an online pledge, was meant to ... disable misconceptions, to enable lives.

All in all, UNICEF Malaysia worked in partnership with some 40 organisations and individuals to/create resources, connect networks, publicise the issue and use social media to encourage a public dialogue on the rights of children with disabilities.

The team took great personal pride in this professional achievement.

As always, the extensive and significant work done by civil society complements the efforts of government to shape policies and provide services for children with disabilities.

The National Early Childhood Intervention Council’s emphasis on early detection and intervention is one of the cornerstones of efforts to ensure that children with disabilities are not neglected.

I look forward to an honest, robust, discussion over the next few days to shed light on the challenges faced by children with disabilities, caregivers, service providers and policy makers.

We are also really looking forward to tomorrrow’s Tweetchat which will be focusing on inclusive education.

The Tweet chat is meant to bring the issue to the general public, so that we might continue this conversation outside these walls, on social media. The hash tag for the conversation is #edu4allMy.

And we look forward to your participation on that, tomorrow at 6.00pm.

As the National Early Childhood Intervention Council has rightly said –it is not the child with disabilities whom we should change – it is our systems, and our attitudes that need to change.

Let me end this address by keeping the conference theme front and centre…passion has no parameters. And children themselves have a lot to teach us about the value of passion.

This quotation from 16 years old Renaldy Raphael-a Malaysian child with hearing disability illustrates this point very well.

“I have a dream. My dream is as high as a mountain. There is no dream that we cannot achieve as long as we have the passion for it. Be a dreamer and get success out of your dreams”

To this end, UNICEF will continue to advocate tirelessly and, yes, passionately on improving the wellbeing of children with disabilities.

And with passion we will all surely make a difference. I wish you a fruitful and insightful/conference.

Thank you.





Wivina Belmonte - UNICEF Representative, Malaysia

Ms. Wivina Belmonte




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