Taking disabled children away from the sidelines

Access to sport and recreation is not only every child’s right, but it has an incredible ripple effect which can impact other vital sectors like health and education

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Mouayyed spent the first nine years of his life watching his friends from the sidelines. 

He was banned from taking part in PE classes in his school near Souf in Jordan simply because he is a wheelchair user.  Teachers said they couldn’t cater for him.  Sporting facilities are generally limited in the country and the participation of marginalised children – like Mouayyed – incredibly rare, mostly as a result of misunderstanding and stigma.

The 2012 Paralympics in London were a game-changer for disabled people in the UK and around the world.  Their success challenged perceptions about what people with different physical and mental capabilities can do and demonstrated the incredible power generated when we all unite behind inclusion.  However, nearly one year on, we have urgent work to do to bridge the gap between changing minds and changing lives for the long term.  UNICEF’s new State of the World’s Children report, released today, reveals that tens of millions of disabled children are still struggling simply to survive and thrive.  The research finds that they are often last in line for vital services like healthcare and education and are up to four times more likely to be subject to violence than their peers.

The report also highlights a hidden link between malnutrition and disability.  For example, each year up to half a million children are at risk of going blind, purely because they don’t consume enough Vitamin A.  Furthermore, disabled children are at risk of becoming under-nourished.  This can be because of the types of conditions they have. For example, cerebral palsy can cause problems with chewing and swallowing, while cystic fibrosis affects the body’s absorption of nutrients. But the report also suggests that disabled children are often hidden away from feeding programmes because of shame and stigma.  

The situation for disabled children has to change.  I am supporting UNICEF projects as part of my role as an Ambassador for International Inspiration – the international legacy programme of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games run by UNICEF and others – which is helping to engage disabled children around the world in sport and play.  I am a firm believer that access to sport and recreation is not only every child’s right, but it has an incredible ripple effect which can impact other vital sectors like health and education.  When disabled children are included, it helps to raise their standing and encourages general acceptance and understanding.  

As part of my role, I had the chance to travel to Jordan to launch the programme in the country.  Thanks to its success, Mouayyed – the boy who was always forced to miss PE classes – took part in sports sessions with his friends for the very first time.  He was overflowing with enthusiasm and could not stop talking about how good it felt.  It was a small step, but one with an enormous personal and public impact.  On a policy level the Ministry of Education jumped on board with the project, identifying training materials and resources for PE teachers and classes.  Social media and TV were used to bring the inclusion message to a wider audience.

This change is not just happening in Jordan.  Young lives are being  transformed through sport and play from Azerbaijan to Zambia – and we need to do everything we can to support the process.  We have a range of opportunities to do so.  Just last week I gave evidence to the Commons Select Committee on making physical education available to all children, including those with disabilities, in order to improve lives and health bills.  On June 8, at the ‘Nutrition for Growth’ summit, the British Government has the opportunity to commit further funds to tackling malnutrition and its effects – which could have a huge effect on disabled children around the world.

Children like Mouayyed have incredible potential and by including them in society we all benefit.  It’s not enough just to talk about transformation; we need to achieve it.  We must seize on the inspiration of events like the Paralympics to fight discrimination and create lasting change for hundreds of millions of children worldwide. 

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