Oyun-Erdene has a disability. She smiles as her older brother Baljinnyam picks her up and
carries her on his back ©UNICEF/NYHQ2012-1781/Sokol
Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This day aims to promote an understanding of people with disabilities and encourages support for their dignity, rights and well-being. People with disabilities face discrimination on a daily basis. Their abilities and capacities are overlooked. They miss out on vital health care and education and are often excluded from society. This is also true for children with disabilities.
In my work too often I see children missing out on opportunities because they have a disability. For example, 10 year old Zulbayar has not gone to school for years. Because of his disability he is in a wheel chair and requires additional learning support, and there are no schools in his community that can meet his needs. Instead of going to school this bright boy stays home every day and watches television.
Children with disabilities have rights. Every child, including children with disabilities, has the same rights, which are protected by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child. The rights of people with disabilities, including children, are further protected in the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. While Mongolia has ratified both these conventions in 1990 and 2008 and made a commitment to protecting and promoting the rights of children with disabilities, they remain one of the most marginalized and neglected groups of children in Mongolia.
Key to changing this is to change how Mongolian society sees disability. Until recently, disability was seen as a medical issue that needed to be fixed. If children could not be fixed they were isolated from society and kept with other children with disabilities in special schools and institutions, or at home isolated from society. There is a move away from this model, to one where children and adults with disabilities are included in everyday life and are actively engaged in society. A model where society looks at what it must do to enable and support children with disabilities to reach their full unique potential, rather than trying to cure the child of their disability.
Achieving this requires environmental and attitudinal barriers be broken down by society as a whole. And this is slowly starting to happen. Recently Ireedui 21, a school in Murun in northern Mongolia, opened a learning and recreational centre for children with disabilities at the school. The centre will offer better educational opportunities to children with disabilities, while also assisting them to attend a school where children with and without disabilities learn together. Integrating children with and without disabilities into the same school, leads to better learning outcomes for all students, reduces inequalities, promotes tolerance, and helps build a more inclusive society. There is hope that other schools will follow Ireedui 21’s lead but this is a very slow process.
Another area that must change is access to services. Support for families with children with disabilities is not charity or welfare, it is an investment in people’s capacity. Currently only a small proportion of children with disabilities can access social services, and often these services are not enough. This lack of support means that families are responsible for meeting the needs of their children, placing huge financial strains on families. Families are provided with a monthly child disability payment of US$88 by the state, but this does not cover the costs of medicines, physical, occupational or speech therapies or transportation. Often families simply can’t afford to provide their children with the care they need and the child misses out.
Greater commitment to children with disabilities will help break down barriers to their full inclusion in society, so that they can participate in social, economic and cultural life. Mongolia can do so much more to ensure children with disabilities have the opportunity to reach their potential and to contribute to society.
Mandal Urtnasan is the Community Development Specialist at UNICEF in Mongolia