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From an “Invisible” Population, a Beacon of Inspiration for Leaders


A Message for Aspiring Leaders

UNICEF and Special Olympics have been working together since 2007 to protect and uphold the rights of children with disabilities, as well as change perceptions and challenge negative attitudes. At a recent Special Olympics Leadership Academy in Baku, Azerbaijan, UNICEF representative Edward Carwardine was invited to speak about the global partnership, which has been renewed for a further five years.

During a powerful speech to Special Olympics leaders from across Europe Eurasia, Carwardine highlighted how true leadership enables greatness to shine through, oftentimes from unexpected quarters. He said: ‘Some people say leadership is about setting out a vision for others to follow. Some say that leadership is about serving others. Many people see leadership as a symbol of ambition. Or setting an example to others.

‘I think one of the most inspiring definitions of leadership that I have seen comes from James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States. He said, “The test of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it – for the greatness is already there.”

‘When I look at the young leaders here today, that definition—to me—is undoubtedly the most appropriate. Because the athletes that you work with, every day, personify greatness. Through their commitment and dedication to their sport, those athletes demonstrate that there should be no true barriers to achievement. Through their active participation and engagement in sporting events, they show the world that when opportunities to excel are created, they will be embraced.

‘And through their excellence, energy and passion for sports, those athletes—as the vision of the Special Olympics clearly states—inspire others to be more inclusive and embrace a wider world of talents and potential. By making this possible, you yourselves personify the most valuable definition of leadership.’

Attitudes Can Close Doors to Opportunity

Carwardine’s remarks are especially powerful as the world celebrates the 10th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2016. This groundbreaking Convention’s message that persons with disabilities are entitled to the full spectrum of human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination has been ratified in more than 160 countries. However, there remains much work to be done, particularly when it comes to children.

Echoing this theme in his remarks, Carwardine said: ‘Children with disabilities are one of the most marginalized and excluded groups in society. They face daily discrimination in the form of negative attitudes and lack of adequate policies and legislation. They are prevented from realizing their rights to healthcare, education, and even survival.’

Youngsters with Disabilities are Effectively Invisible

Current estimates suggest that there are at least 93 million children with disabilities in the world, of which more than 5 million live in the Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia Region; but these numbers are not exact and could, in fact, be much higher.

Carwardine continued: ‘These children are often likely to be among the poorest members of the population. They are less likely to attend school, access medical services, or have their voices heard in society. Their disabilities also place them at a higher risk of physical abuse. Girls with disabilities often face a double discrimination, being less likely to receive an education, access training opportunities or find employment, than boys with disabilities.

‘When communities do try to offer support, too often it can be on the basis of keeping children with disabilities out of mainstream life in a well-intentioned but misdirected attempt to protect them from society. Instead of allowing children to open doors for themselves, we close them.

‘In this region, UNICEF estimated that more than 3.5 million children with disabilities—so more than two-thirds—are not even counted in social registers. This makes them effectively invisible.

‘A third of children out of school in this region are estimated to be children with disabilities. And it is not only in education that children with disabilities face exclusion—they are often unable to access early childhood care, benefit from social interaction, recreation and other communal activities. In short, too many children with disabilities have the shared experience of being defined and judged by their disability rather than their potential,’ he added.

Re-writing The Narrative For Children With Disabilities

Thanks to the joint efforts of UNICEF and Special Olympics these trends are being tackled with the help and support of government’s and state agencies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Azerbaijan with the political leadership there embracing the active role and positive impact that people with intellectual disabilities can make to society.

‘Today, we are in Azerbaijan—where I am pleased to tell you that significant steps are being taken by the Azerbaijan government and others to rewrite the narrative for children with disabilities. For example, children with disabilities are being helped into mainstream education, through the redesign of curriculum, new teacher training programmes, new classroom techniques, and improved access to schools,’ Carwardine continued.

‘Sports and leisure facilities have been assessed to determine where improvements in accessibility are needed, and programmes have been established to train coaches and sports leaders in inclusive activities. There is increased investment in rehabilitation support for children with physical disabilities, and we are seeing the start of a new focus on early detection of disabilities.

‘Elsewhere in the region, similar initiatives are underway, with a strong focus on the increased inclusion of children with disabilities in the life of their communities and in society as a whole.

‘But while we can all work to improve access to facilities, and improve systems and policies and programmatic approaches, and while we can encourage and facilitate participation of people with disabilities in community activities, all of this will have limited impact unless we also address one basic barrier to progress. That barrier is our own attitudes and perceptions towards people with disabilities.

‘The single most important change I believe we can bring about is how people with disabilities—whether children or adults—are viewed by the societies in which they live—because it is often said, that when you change, the world changes.

‘Underestimating the abilities of people with disabilities is one of the most significant obstacles to their inclusion. That underestimation can exist amongst professionals, decision-makers, in families, peers and even in people with disabilities themselves, especially if for so long they have been told what they cannot do, rather than having the chance to show what they can do.

‘Not only does such an attitude devalue people with disabilities, but it attacks their fundamental rights. ### ‘At UNICEF, we believe with a passion that all children have the right to a fair start in life, and should continue to be treated with fairness and equity as they grow older. And it is our shared responsibility as a society to do all we can, to create the environment in which that right is upheld.

‘Meeting that responsibility starts with a simple recognition that children with disabilities are children first. And the limits on their potential are placed upon them not by themselves, but by us.

‘Your work pushes those limits away. Special Olympics plays a vital role in raising awareness of the abilities and rights of children with intellectual disabilities, challenging negative attitudes, by supporting the provision of sports and other programmes that champion a different perception of children.

‘UNICEF is proud to be a partner of Special Olympics in these efforts, together emphasising the importance of participation and empowerment of children and their families, building their self-reliance and confidence. Every time a young athlete with intellectual disabilities steps out into an arena … or dives into the water … or scores a goal … or lifts a racquet … or raises a sail …. a message is sent out to the world.’

Special Olympics and UNICEF Partnership

Through innovative programs and national partnerships, Special Olympics and UNICEF are working closely in over 35 nations to highlight the abilities and contributions that children and youth with intellectual disabilities make to their communities and countries. Special Olympics Programs worldwide have benefitted greatly from UNICEF support—through UNICEF Country Offices and National Committees alike. From Jamaica to Kazakhstan, and from Armenia to Brazil and beyond—UNICEF has been a pivotal partner in advancing key programs in support of Special Olympics athletes. Strategic initiatives such as Unified Sports, Healthy Athletes/Healthy Communities, Family Health Forums, Athlete Leadership and much more have witnessed significant growth throughout the developing world due to UNICEF’s leadership in achieving equity for the world’s most vulnerable populations.