At the age of 30 and in the prime of her professional life, Cara E. Yar Khan was diagnosed with a very rare progressive muscle-wasting disease, Hereditary Inclusion Body Myopathy. But instead of staying home and preparing for a life of inability, she drew from her new perspective to become a powerful advocate for the world’s most vulnerable children—those with disabilities.
Cara gave an inspirational and insightful talk about how UNICEF includes the needs of children with disabilities in all of its work. She emphasized that disability is not a new topic for UNICEF. The organization has always been concerned with issues facing children with disabilities, but it was often through the lens of child protection. UNICEF’s strategy today is not only to protect these children from discrimination but to help ensure they are able to enjoy all of their rights.
Cara’s presentation gave me a new perspective. People often associate disability with a medical condition or a physical impairment. But according to the World Health Organization, disability is neither purely biological nor social. Rather, it is the interaction between one’s health condition, the environment, and an inability to participate. For example, if a child in a wheelchair is unable to attend school because the building is only accessible by stairs, then this is an environmental barrier that impedes the child’s right to an education. The problem is not the child’s disability, but rather the lack of services and provisions to meet her specific needs. Disability is part of human diversity, and children with disabilities are as capable as everyone else—if they are given the chance to fully participate in society.
UNICEF incorporates the needs of children with disabilities into its programs, so that the rights of all children are protected. In a school setting, for example, UNICEF looks at several factors to ensure that children with disabilities have the same opportunity to learn as everybody else. These include the school’s physical infrastructure, learning materials, furniture in classrooms, and a school environment that is free from stigma and discrimination.
I walked away from this presentation realizing that I had a responsibility to promote diversity in my work by making sure that people with disabilities are positively represented in all kinds of situations. I also took away a better understanding of how truly committed UNICEF is to ensuring that every child, everywhere is able to enjoy his or her right to education, health, and protection from violence and exploitation.