As we mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3, let us all commit to tackling the stigma, discrimination and neglect that children and youth with disabilities face, and to ensuring they have access to disability inclusive education, services, support and the inclusive social protection they need to reach their full potential.
Children and youth with disabilities, especially girls, are three to four times more likely to experience violence, abuse and neglect than others their age. They are particularly vulnerable in emergency situations, when they face increased challenges in accessing inclusive protection, aid and education. The greatest barrier they face is not the disability but the discrimination and barriers they face.
This is particularly critical in Lebanon, a country whose social protection system is fragmented with very limited coverage especially for people with disabilities. The multi-faceted crisis has left most families struggling to survive, with severe repercussions for the estimated 300,000 children and youth with disabilities.
Only one percent of children with disabilities in Lebanon are enrolled in public schools. Robbed of their right to learn, they will face formidable challenges in accessing the workforce – and helping shape decisions that most affect them.
The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has taken up these challenges, and is working with the government and other partners to ensure the realization of rights of all children and youth with disabilities.
UNICEF, in consultation with Organizations of People with Disabilities (OPDS), supported Lebanon in developing the National Policy on Inclusive Education for Children with Special Needs, to ensure that all children share the same classrooms, fostering genuine learning opportunities for those historically marginalized.
In consultation with OPDS, UNICEF has supported the government in strengthening a disability-inclusive national social protection system and in launching the National Disability Allowance (NDA), which provides direct income support to youth with disabilities.
But far more needs to be done to ensure children and youth and girls with disabilities grow up healthy, empowered, protected from harm and engaged in their communities.
Inclusion does not magically happen; it is an intentional process of social transformation. Ensuring children and youth with disabilities enjoy the same rights to which all children are entitled requires planning for disability inclusion at all levels of society.
It means addressing stigma and discrimination at school and in the community. It means adopting and implementing inclusive policies, and it means ensuring children with disabilities have access to all the support and inclusive services they need, especially social protection.
Disability inclusion starts with both individuals and structures of society, including the adoption and implementation of policies and laws. To demonstrate this commitment to inclusion, it is now the time for Lebanon to revise its laws to be in line with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) – given that in 2022, the Lebanese Parliament adopted a law authorizing the government to proceed with the ratification of the Convention and its Optional Protocol.
It is crucial that decision-makers throughout Lebanon prioritize the core values of inclusivity, diversity and equal opportunity. Through a concerted focus on enhancing accessibility, education, employment, social support and promoting collaboration between the government and civil society, we can chart a course toward a more promising and inclusive future for every child in Lebanon, irrespective of their abilities.
Edouard Beigbeder is the UNICEF representative in Lebanon.