Some 1.1 million children with disabilities in Central and Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union are hidden away at home or in institutions, the United Nations reported today, calling on States that have not yet done so to sign a UN treaty guaranteeing their social inclusion.
These children are likely to be out of school and among those most vulnerable to neglect, abuse and exploitation, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said at the start in Moscow of a three-day conference on the issue which it has organized with support from the city government.
Eighteen of the 22 countries and entities across the region have signed and 12 have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which guarantees children with disabilities access to inclusive, quality and free primary and secondary education on an equal basis with others in the communities in which they live.
“For too many years, people with disability have been cast as bystanders or objects of pity and charity,” said UNICEF’s representative for Russia, Bertrand Bainvel, praising the country for signing the convention in 2008.
Experts and government officials from 20 countries are participating in the conference, which is focusing on sharing of good practices such as the appropriate legal framework, suitable policies and financing.
“A sustained effort should be made to reduce prejudice, stigma and discrimination against children with disabilities,” UNICEF Senior Adviser on Children with Disabilities Rosangela Berman-Bieler said.
“To address societal perceptions and change attitudes towards them advocacy, social mobilization and communication for behaviour and social change interventions are necessary.”
A WHO benchmark places the number of children who have disabilities at 2.5 per cent of the population or 2.6 million children in the region, but national statistics record only 1.5 million, most of whom are likely to be out of school. This figure seriously underestimates the scope of the problem and suggests another 1.1 million children are unaccounted for, UNICEF said.
They remain invisible; most likely hidden away at home or joining more than 600,000 people currently placed in institutions, which is a common policy approach in many of the countries.
Research shows that long-term placement in institutions damages children’s health and development. When children with disabilities are not hidden away in institutions but live in their homes and are educated in mainstream schools, they are often placed in segregated classes. They are either taught a remedial curriculum or not taught at all. They are not offered the support that some may need to be able to thrive with their classmates.
But UNICEF stressed, research also shows that inclusive education can lead to better learning outcomes for all children, not just children with disabilities. Inclusive education promotes tolerance and enables social cohesion as it fosters a cohesive social culture and promotes equal participation in society. Inclusive education is more cost effective than separated schooling. It also provides for inclusive labour markets which lead to a more efficient social economy.
Leaders were urged to take government-wide measures to end the placement of all children in institutions, prioritizing those younger than three years of age. They were also urged to put in place education policies and strategies to promote the right to access and full participation in quality education, and the respect for rights within learning environments.