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Children with Disabilities: Still Children

July 15, 2013

A smiling woman in a black shirtAnais Keenon graduated magna cum laude from the University of Oregon in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism: Advertising. After her internship experience at Mobility International USA and free lancing a feature story on people with disabilities in Ghana, Ms. Keenon became inspired to pursue a career advocating for disability inclusion in development work. She is now halfway through a Master’s program in International Development at Gallaudet University, known as the world’s only major university for the Deaf, and is expected to graduate in June 2014.   Anais is completing her Youth in Development (YIDA) internship at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which has worked in more than 135 countries to support citizens’ rights to participate in free and fair elections.  USICD launched the YiD internship program this year to bring students with disabilities from across the United States to complete summer internships in international organizations in the Washington, DC, area.  Here, Anais reflects upon a recent workshop and discussion session offered to YiD interns on UNICEF’s recently released report on the 2013 State of the World’s Children: Children with Disabilities.  Connect with Anais via her LinkedIn profile at: http://www.linkedin.com/in/anaiskeenon

Sometimes it’s easy for people to forget that children with disabilities are still children. Though they will need extra care and services related to their disability, at the end of the day kids with disabilities have the same wishes as other kids: to play games and make-believe, color messily on papers, refuse to eat icky foods, and dream of being astronauts, or chefs, or firefighters. Later they’ll have crushes on cute boys or girls, talk back to their parents or teachers, and will probably be called “stubborn” at least once in their lives. Too many people focus on the disability only and struggle to remember the “child” part.

People seated around a conference table listen to a speaker seated at the headRecently, I had the honor of hearing Rosangela Berman-Bieler, UNICEF’s Senior Advisor on Children with Disability, speak about just that point. Recently UNICEF released a report titled “The State of the World’s Children 2013: Children with Disabilities,” which conservatively estimates that there are around 93 million children with disabilities worldwide, most of which do not have access to the opportunities that children should have: Strong community support, the chance to learn at school alongside their peers, or encouragement to dream about and set goals for the future. Ms. Berman-Bielar explained that for many children with disabilities the familial and academic support (or lack thereof) has a profound and everlasting effect on their physical and mental growth. A child with a disability who is neglected or abandoned will become a very different adult in terms of independence than the child with a disability who is constantly supported and feels loved. 

As a counterpoint and response to the sometimes depressing anecdotes and statistics, UNICEF decided to create a series of videos called “2 Lives 2 Miles Apart” to highlight disability access and capability for children. In comparison to other videos I’ve viewed, I was struck by how normal the kids with disabilities were allowed to be; in fact, I don’t recall their disabilities being discussed at all. One video showed a child talking about wanting to become a meteorologist while another talked about becoming an actor. Another video showed a middle-school girl talking about her boyfriend, and a middle-school boy wanting to have a girlfriend in the future. In other words, they were talking about the exact same things other children their age were talking about.

One of the concluding questions inquired, “In 20 years, what would you like to see change for children with disabilities?” Though I was a child who was hard-of-hearing, for most of my early life I fought to be seen as a child first and foremost. My wish would be that children with disabilities are allowed two things: One, to have a voice in deciding their own accommodations when appropriate, and two, to have the right and opportunity to be seen and loved for their brain, heart, and soul – like any child deserves.

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