Focus: Listening to young voices

“I would like for every person with disabilities to have an education.” – Schemona Trinidad, Berbice, Guyana; 16 years old, with a visual impairment

Access to quality education is a priority for many young people, including those with disabilities. When asked – in a survey for The State of the World’s Children 2013: Children with Disabilities – what they would change about the world to make life easier for children with disabilities, the number one response was “improve education opportunities.”

The 54 respondents (aged 13–25 years) were members of the Young Voices campaign, an initiative of the Leonard Cheshire Disability Global Alliance, which works to achieve equal rights for people with disabilities. Respondents came from 10 countries – Guyana, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Namibia, the Philippines, South Sudan, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe – but had much in common in terms of their experiences.  

Difficulties related to their disabilities affected most of the respondents’ school life. The most common problems involved educational materials, tuition and student support. These issues were particularly pronounced for deaf and hard-of-hearing students and those with visual impairments. Students described struggles with obtaining study materials in Braille, large print and other accessible formats, and – particularly for students with hearing disabilities – with communication. Such students stressed that a lack of sign language interpreters and signing teachers made it very challenging to communicate in school. Some students also felt that their teachers did not sufficiently address the needs of children with disabilities because they lacked either the training or motivation to do so. For example, some teachers underestimated the abilities of students with disabilities, while others ignored them and did not offer the necessary assistance. 

The second biggest obstacle was getting to school. This was particularly difficult for students who used wheelchairs or crutches, or those who had trouble walking. Sometimes the school was too far away; other times heavy rain, rough terrain and poor roads made it difficult to walk or wheel to school. The lack of accessible public transportation, appropriate assistive devices and assistance from others were some of the other reasons young people with disabilities found it difficult to get to school.

“When I was still young my grandmother used to carry me on her back to school but when I was grown she couldn’t manage then I had to skip school most of the days.” – Anonymous, Harare, Zimbabwe; 17 years old, with cerebral palsy, a mild intellectual disability and epilepsy

Once they managed to get to school, getting around and fitting in could also be trying for these young people. A lack of ramps, elevators and accessible toilets were reported as some of the infrastructure issues the students faced. A number of the students also faced social exclusion and participation restrictions, as well as bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment; sometimes peers laughed at them or purposely put obstacles in their way. Even in the absence of overt discrimination, several students reported not having the opportunity to participate in activities because their disabilities were not accommodated, making it difficult to make friends, and sometimes even to communicate.

“Classmates … would do nasty things, like keep tables and chairs in the way, so that I fumble and fall.” – Sharmishthaa Atreja, Delhi, India; 24 years old, with a visual impairment

Financial troubles loomed large for students, forcing some to leave school altogether. Schools were unable to accommodate their disability-related needs, and without appropriate assistance they could not keep up with tuition. In some instances, schools and colleges were not willing to enrol students with disabilities. 

Despite these challenges, about 15 per cent of respondents said they had no trouble at school.

The respondents were full of ideas on how to overcome the challenges they faced in school. They talked about the need for inclusive education – with appropriately trained teachers and assistive personnel; suitable devices, teaching materials and aids; and facilities that adhere to the principles of universal design. They also generated ideas on getting to school – for example, via improved assistive devices or accessible public transport. One novel idea was to have a priority lane for people with disabilities. Some suggestions looked beyond the school system to the necessity for coordination between education and medical services so that children with disabilities could receive health services at school. Others talked about government accountability and the need to implement and monitor the rights of persons with disabilities. The importance of combating discrimination and raising awareness about disability among all stakeholders, including the authorities, was also highlighted.   

Improving education opportunities for children with disabilities was only the first of 12 themes identified by the respondents as things that would make their lives easier. When discussing education, the respondents also stressed their desire for higher education. The complete list of what the respondents would like to change about the world is presented below. The second-strongest theme stressed the importance of equal social opportunities and the third called for making the physical environment more accessible. 

This survey clearly shows that members of the Young Voices network are greatly concerned about the equal treatment of children and young people with disabilities. Quality, accessible education, health and other services; an accessible environment; and opportunities for employment and recreation are a big aspect of what equality means to them. The survey also shows the importance of listening to young people with disabilities. They are acutely aware of their situations and the changes that need to take place to achieve improvements.

Themes identified by young people when asked: What would you like to change about the world to make life easier for children with disabilities? 

  1. Improve education opportunities for children with disabilities.
  2. Provide equal social opportunities to children with disabilities.
  3. Make the environment accessible.
  4. Make changes at the political level and in the law.
  5. Improve access to health services. 
  6. Increase opportunities to participate in leisure and recreation.
  7. Increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
  8. Make other general improvements to the lives of children with disabilities (miscellaneous).
  9. Increase access to assistive and other technology. 
  10. Provide financial assistance to children with disabilities.
  11. Protect children with disabilities.
  12. Improve relations within the families of children with disabilities.

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