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Removing the stigma

Günther Birkenstock / cbMay 30, 2013

In many countries of the world, a disability is a stigma. Disabled children are hidden by their families and don't go to school. A new UNICEF report draws attention to their tragic plight.

Two little vietnamese girls smiling. (Photo: UNICEF Vietnam/Dominic Blewett)
Image: UNICEF Vietnam/Dominic Blewett

Nine-year-old Uyen from the Vietnamese town of Zandong is mentally disabled. For a long time she lived at home with her grandparents without any aid or education, until social workers convinced Uyen's grandmother to send the girl to a center for handicapped children.

"She couldn't walk and could only speak a few words," said Rudi Tarneden, spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). "Now, you can see that this formerly isolated child has turned into a happy, curious and bright girl." Uyen's development is a typical success story of a disabled child with access to education, said Tarneden.

Despite Uyen's positive example, the situation is quite different for most of the disabled children in developing and emerging countries. No more than 15 percent of disabled people in developing nations have access to necessary equipment like wheelchairs, for example.

Rudi Tarneden, UNICEF press spokesman. (Photo: Private)
Disabled children are often neglected and discriminated, says TarnedenImage: Privat

Three quarters of the people who suffer from epilepsy in poor countries don't receive the necessary medication, according to an estimate from the World Health Organization's (WHO), which didn't quote exact figures. In fact, reliable data on the situation of disabled children was a point of contention in the UNICEF report, "The situation of children in the world," released on Thursday (30.5.2013).

"We know that on the one hand, all states carry a banner for children's rights and emphasize that they signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child," said Tarneden, though he adds that the reality in many countries looks quite different. The fate of disabled children and their families isn't considered a significant issue in politics, he said. "Often, children aren't even registered after they're born."

Neglected, isolated, discriminated

While there are many specialized ways to support disabled children in industrialized countries, they are "forgotten, neglected and often discriminated" in large parts of the world, said Tarneden. Ignorance and stigmatization lead to disabled children becoming isolated and thus "invisible," according to the UNICEF report.

Portrait of Christine Wegner-Schneider, CARITAS program coordinator in Asia. (Photo: Wegner-Schneider, private)
Some people believe disabilities are contagious, says Wegner-SchneiderImage: privat

In Eastern Europe, for example, it's still common for the authorities to advise parents to send their disabled children to special homes instead of raising them with the family. UNICEF has called for the exact opposite. "We demand that disabled children are no longer ignored when it comes to regular child care offers, and that existing facilities are opened up for the children," the organization said.

Integration, not isolation

Numerous examples of successful charity projects show that this type of integration doesn't have to remain an unattainable ideal. In Armenia, UNICEF taught teachers and educators how to respond to the special needs of disabled children. So far, 81 regular schools and 30 kindergartens have participated in the project.

Medical personnel in polio clinics have also been educated. "The diagnosis of an illness used to be stigma for life," said Henriette Arens, Armenia's UNICEF representative. Today, there are more therapy possibilities for children. Integration in the regular schools is a big step for Armenia, a country in which around 30 percent of disabled children currently don't attend school in any form.

Supporting the families

The Catholic Church's social charity organization, Caritas, has been working for the rights of disabled children in developing countries for many years.

In Vietnam, for example, the organization educates health aides who help families take better care of their disabled children at home. At the same time, caretakers are trying to clear up prejudices at local schools.

A little Vietnamese girl is drawing on a piece of paper with the help of an adult. (Photo: UNICEF Vietnam/Dominic Blewett)
Nine-year-old Uyen has learned a lot at schoolImage: UNICEF Vietnam/Dominic Blewett

"Children with small disabilities are also often excluded from school here, because of fear and discrimination," said Christine Wegner-Schneider, who coordinates Caritas projects in Asia. "People often think disability is a contagious disease."

Wegner-Schneider says the advancement of parents' association in Vietnam is an important step, as it achieves more in the long term than the support of isolated social facilities.

"We want the kids to grow up in their home environment," she said. That's why Caritas also supports poor families with micro credits to allow them to invest in cattle breeding or to build up a small business. After all, raising a disabled child means a cut in the family budget. The money earned with cattle or the business is supposed to compensate that loss. This way, hopefully more children will share the fate of nine-year-old Uyen and can be supported and educated right from the start.