Growing European action for children with disabilities

Last week, to celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I travelled to Brussels to take part in the Day of Persons with Disabilities conference organized by the European Commission and the European Disability Forum. This year, it focused on children and adolescents living with disabilities, with a special emphasis on inclusion and participation. I felt especially hopeful and excited. Why?

For the first time, the conference brought the child rights community and the disability community together. To my mind, this is a breakthrough moment – and critical for shared understanding and joint progress.

The rights of children with disabilities are clearly defined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, now ratified by more than 160 countries and the EU, but many children with disabilities in Europe and around the world still face barriers that prevent them from living full lives. Without collective action or results, the rights enshrined in the Convention and the commitments made in the EU’s Disability Strategy amount to little more than words on paper.

Happily, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda has reenergized efforts to translate these rights into results for all children, everywhere. Its goals are universal – and at its core is a global commitment to ‘leave no one behind’.

Building on that momentum, UNICEF and the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) joined forces to present new global data on violence against children with disabilities and the first EU-wide report looking at forms, causes and settings where violence occurs and the legal and policy frameworks as they currently function The FRA study urges countries to ban placing children in institutions and calls for more training, and better monitoring, to strengthen national child protection systems. As a follow up, in February 2016, the European Parliament plans to convene a meeting of parliamentarians interested in child rights and disability rights.

CWD- lead

The upcoming mid-term review of the EU Disability Strategy presents another opportunity to integrate the rights of persons with disabilities across all policy areas and funding decisions. From development cooperation and humanitarian aid to EU enlargement, migration, and more. Doing this right requires listening to the disability community, including children. So, UNICEF is working hard with partners to amplify their voices.

Over the past two years, we’ve worked closely with partners to put children and adults with disabilities at the heart of the 2030 Agenda – not as a token measure, but as participants in the implementation and monitoring of all relevant strategies.

But we must all do better. Every child, everywhere has something to offer. His or her energies, talents and ideas can make a positive difference to families, communities and to our world. And it’s up to us to enable them to share their gifts.

UNICEF’s campaign It’s About Ability combats stigma and discrimination against children living with disabilities and promotes an inclusive society for all. What does that mean in practice?

It means that children with disabilities require access to inclusive quality education so we must address the barriers that prevent them going to school, staying in school and learning.

It means that we must protect children with disabilities. The statistics are shocking:

  • Children and adolescents with disabilities are three to four times more likely to experience physical and sexual violence and neglect.
  • Children with disabilities are up to 17 times more likely to live in an institution than their peers without disabilities…exposing them to greater risks of violence, neglect and abuse.
  • For every child killed in conflict, three acquire a permanent injury or disability.

And it means that we must do a better job of caring for children with disabilities who are refugees or migrants. They are more at risk of being left behind along the journey, separated from their families and care-givers, and are more vulnerable to violence, exploitation and sexual abuse.

Recent EU commitment to disability-inclusive humanitarian responses – the new 10 Guiding Principles on Integrated Child Protection Systems – are welcome developments. But what was clear throughout the conference was that we could all do so much more if we had better data and evidence – disaggregated data to inform decision-making and help monitor progress for all social groups, including children.

I’m excited by the new momentum for supporting children with disabilities in Europe and around the world. And, as we usher in a new year, UNICEF looks forward to continued work with the EU, our sister UN agencies, civil society and ― especially ― organizations of persons with disabilities, to give every child, everywhere a fair chance and a more diverse and inclusive world for all.

Rosangela Berman Bieler is a Senior Adviser in the Children with Disabilities section of UNICEF

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  1. To make a reality of this excellent initiative, EU Member States should be required through CRPD mechanisms to produce regular progress reports, showing the number of children and young people re-located from institutional to community services and supports, in cooperation with families and local agencies. Some countries have moved much faster than others in Eastern Europe in developing essential community supports.

  2. Some years ago, I have attended a conference on disabilities at the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C. (USA) and I have been positively impressed by the intensity and completeness of the report presented. In fact, lots of different variables have been taken into consideration in a triangulation approach. For example: people, health issues, diseases, education, infrastructures, architectures and environment intended as sum of individuals, rules, institutions and opportunities.

    All of us, for a short or long period of our life, have experienced a disabling situation. Unfortunately, there are people who have to suffer from it for a long time but I believe that if everybody remembered that period of his/her life could hopefully exercise sensitivity, tolerance and compassion.

    A person is not at his/her best when experiences such situation and the environment plays a big role. In fact, for example, if this person lives in a big city or in an urban area probably is in a better condition than someone living in a rural area. Big centers tend to offer more facilities and the inhabitants are usually better educated, more open minded, social and sensitive. Therefore there might be equal opportunities for everybody. On the contrary, people who live in rural areas, if disabled, either by their body or by the environment, for a short or long period, are not given many possibilities of living a decent life as well as interaction moments because the society is usually closer and less helpful. Therefore their lives become extremely difficult and psychologically unsustainable. Also, cultures and traditions play a role. In fact, some old societies still believe that the disease is not due to health problems but magic or similar.

    Concluding, education is the way to create fertile ground for sustainable operations. Are disabled people (or those who have been disabled) called to participate during the intervention planning? Do they have a say?

    And in December 2013, in Washington, D.C. (USA), I have received the answer while attending the event organized by the International Disability Rights and Transatlantic Partnership: Breaking Down Barriers to Opportunity, Accessibility, and Inclusion. This transatlantic event has brought together American and European human rights experts for an in-depth discussion about the most effective ways to promote disability rights within our respective societies and around the world.

    U.S. and EU together…with sensitivity…

    Thank you very much. Laura Gagliardone