‘Tis the season to celebrate our one billion disabled
It’s that time of year again. There’s a distinctly nutmeg-y smell wafting from bakeries, and supermarket songs are featuring jingling bells and Mariah Carey. Yep, it’s come around again: International Day of People with Disabilities.
For the past 20 years, 3 December has marked this International Day to promote understanding of people with disabilities, and encourage support for their dignity, rights and well-being.
On one hand, its timing is slightly awkward – people’s schedules are filled with Christmas parties and holiday plans, and work is either winding down or revving up depending on how far behind you are on your yearly KPIs. For those of us who wish to mark the day and raise awareness of disability issues, the competition for people’s attention is high.
This year, however, I’ve come to decide that the timing is just right. The distinctly festive buzz creeping in through the tinseled shop windows perfectly sets the scene for what this international day should be: a celebration of people with disabilities, all that they contribute to society, and all that they deserve.
Before it starts to sound like I’m writing this through rose-coloured glasses of Christmas sherry, let me hit you with some hard facts. There are one billion people with disability in the world, and eighty percent of them live in developing countries. Disability is most prevalent in the world’s poorest areas, because of a vicious cycle that links disability and poverty.
This cycle kicks off because people with disabilities are at a much higher risk of poverty, as they are frequently excluded from opportunities like education, employment and social participation due to discrimination and inaccessibility. At the same time, poverty breeds dangerous conditions such as unsafe work and living environments, poor nutrition and limited health care… meaning that people who live in poverty are at higher risk of acquiring disability.
And so the cycle spins around, with disability as both a cause and consequence of poverty. The results are quite startling: in some developing countries, over 80 per cent of children with disabilities don’t get to attend school.
Hold it there. How does all this talk of exclusion and poverty relate to the celebration and festive spirit that I claimed for International Day of People with Disabilities?
To start with, celebrating people with disabilities doesn’t mean glossing over the challenges they face. It means acknowledging their full experiences, good and bad. It means recognising everything that people achieve all over the world in spite of, because of, and far beyond any challenges that they may experience related to disability.
For me, the link between the ‘hard’ truths about disability and poverty, and the need to make International Day of People with Disabilities a celebration, is embodied by a shy young man I met in Cambodia called Mr Nop.
For most of his childhood, Mr Nop lived that cycle of poverty and disability. After an illness as a baby, he became largely paralysed in his legs and arm. Mr Nop’s family and community simply did not know what to do with a child with his physical disabilities.
So from when he was a little baby until he was twelve years old, he was most often left largely alone is his house to do nothing. He didn’t go to school, or get rehabilitation, or play outside with friends – day after day, for twelve long years, he was literally left to do nothing.
Sadly, this is not unusual in Cambodia. It is one of the countries where more than four out of every five children with disabilities don’t get to attend school.
When he was 12-years-old, one of CBM’s partner programs found out about Mr Nop’s story. They started providing support to him, and he was soon referred to a school which ran an accelerated program for the many teenagers just like Mr Nop who had missed out on primary education because they had physical disabilities.
Mr Nop got straight into making up for those twelve lost years. He finished his primary education in four years, moved onto the local high school and then straight to university. He couldn’t wipe off his smile when he told me that he was the only university graduate of his family, and that they were all so proud of him. Their brother and their son who for 12 years had led such a limited and deprived existence, and was now achieving all these things.
And the best bit of Mr Nop’s story? I actually met him in the school that he first went to for primary education. He’s now returned there to teach the students with disabilities who, like him, were almost robbed of the opportunity to learn and lead full lives.
Mr Nop’s story is worth celebrating. It’s worth celebrating the significant change in his life that occurred when he was 12. But it’s also worth celebrating who he is as a person, and all that he has achieved.
Which means it’s worth celebrating all of the one billion people with disabilities in the world, who each have the potential to contribute to their families and communities.
So this International Day of People with Disabilities, when you inevitably see some tinsel or hear some jingling bells, remember that there’s something beyond the festive season worth celebrating. In fact, there are one billion of them.
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