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Exclusion as problem of children with disabilities

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DisabilitiesTHERE are millions of African children with disabilities, and a majority of them grapple with enormous disadvantages as a result of their condition. The most common of these challenges is an almost automatic deprivation of basic opportunities, such as access to education and healthcare and mobility.

These deprivations are often deeply rooted in socio-cultural, economic, physical and attitudinal factors. Indeed, in most African societies and perhaps, other developing economies, physical disability has almost become synonymous with social exclusion.

A 94-page report by the Human Rights Watch authored by Elin Martinez released in August 2015 uncovered the plight of half a million South African children living with disabilities. According to the report, children with disabilities in South Africa do not have access to mainstream schools.

They are often denied admittance to mainstream educational facilities because of their disabilities. The report found that children with disabilities suffer barriers that are not experienced by other demographics. For example, when they attend special schools, they often have to pay fees which children without disabilities do not have to pay. For many parents who are often unable to afford the fees, the cost of special schools is a significant barrier to education for the children.

There is also a lack of understanding of the needs of children with disabilities as well as a lack of basic teacher training on how to treat, teach and work with the children. Children with special needs suffer indignities, such as physical violence, emotional and other forms of abuse and neglect.

At a World Conference held in Thailand in 1990, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) together with the UNDP, UNICEF and the World Bank, launched the “Education for All” global movement. Among its goals were a “focus on equity” and the achievement of “universal access to learning” by the year 2000.

At the Senegalese capital of Dakar in 2000, UNESCO changed the deadline for its goals to 2015. The goals include “expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children…” Today, the poor access to childcare and education for children with disabilities in Africa is evidence that UNESCO’s lofty goals will not be achieved by the 2015 deadline.

But the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have set new targets for realization in 2030, calling for, among others, inclusive and equitable access to all levels of education for vulnerable persons and persons living with disabilities, and the provision of education facilities that are child, disability and gender sensitive.

In an interview with the BBC’s Focus on Africa in August 2015, Dr. Toyin Janet Aderemi, Consultant and Public Health Researcher, observed that in Nigeria, children living with disabilities may be the victims of a worse reality relative to Martinez’s report on South Africa. Mainstream educational facilities are often financially inaccessible to Nigerian children with disabilities.

Furthermore, as Aderemi notes, even when the children gain access to mainstream institutions, learning and teaching materials are often lacking and teachers are not trained for the task. The barriers are not limited to educational facilities. Children with disabilities in Africa face problems accessing transportation and social engagement and are most likely to grow up to face discrimination in employment.

Whether or not intended, the discrimination against children with disabilities is pervasive, systemic and institutionalized. The situation in East Africa is not much different from the realities in the West African region and South Africa. A 2008 research by the National Coordinating Agency for Population and Development and the Kenya Bureau of Statistics reveals that while 67 per cent of children with disabilities obtain primary school education, only 19 per cent actually complete secondary school. At the heart of the problem in Kenya is a lack of government funding.

Ironically, the difficulties faced by parents seeking to access care facilities for their children is shockingly common even in some places – such as Alberta, Canada – where we would hope for an efficient and equitable system. A 2014 survey by Public Interest Alberta reveals the extent of the challenge for parents of children with complex special needs, involving the rejection of their children at childcare programs.

Whether the problem of exclusion occurs in Canada or Africa, the situation should alarm policymakers and change advocates. The lack of disability services constitutes a direct contravention of the rights of persons living with disabilities.

As the world celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the UN invites societies to focus on the subthemes of inclusion and accessibility for all, improving disability data and statistics and including individuals with invisible disabilities in society and development.

The deprivations that disabled persons continue to face incontrovertibly impinge on their human rights. A welfarist, charity-based approach – which is the norm in Nigeria and many African nations – fosters further discrimination and abuses of their rights.

More needs to be done in order to ensure equal access to opportunities for children with disabilities and indeed all persons living with both physical and invisible disabilities.
• Iyioha, Ph.D. is a consultant, assistant adjunct professor at the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre, University of Alberta, Canada and a member of the Nigerian Bar.


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