Beyond Disability, Towards Ability

Curator’s note:  We are excited to be supporting the launch of a major new initiative this week—the Government of Mozambique’s cross-sectoral Children with Disabilities campaign.  Marie-Consolée’s post today highlights some of the issues that UNICEF and its partners, with funding from the US Fund for UNICEF, are endeavouring to address.

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Over the past years, I have traveled extensively on field assignments, promoting children’s rights and disseminating lifesaving messages. I spend most of my time on these trips with mothers and their children, discussing life-threatening issues and looking at what strategies are best suited for addressing the problems that they face. All the families I have met so far want a better future for their children.

A while ago though, while accompanying Magnum photographer Patrick Zachmann, on assignment with UNICEF to document the lives of children with disabilities, I had an experience that emphatically drove that message home. In preparation for the visit, I absorbed as much as I could about the situation of children with disabilities in the country.

In Mozambique there are an estimated 1.5 million persons with disabilities (the Forum of Associations of Disabled People in Mozambique, 2002), and 14% of children between the ages of 2 and 9 have at least one type of disability (MICS 2008). According to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, any person who has long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others, is defined as a person with disability.

With the help of our partners, we found mothers and children and followed them for a week in their homes, communities, schools, health centers, and so on, and tried to understand the challenges they faced.

Most of the families we visited were struggling to put a meal on the table every day, and the lack of nutritious food was clearly affecting the well-being of their disabled children. Disability cuts across all areas of life: education, social life, health, water, food, legal protection, communication and participation. But a chronic lack of services–such as schools, health or rehabilitation centers–and the weak support from local institutions have not stopped families of children with disabilities from learning how to love and communicate with their child.

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I realized during the week that inspirational and compelling stories abound among these families. In one house we visited, all eight members of the family had learned sign language to communicate with their loved one. Another time, I was inspired by the strength of a mother who pushed a heavy wheelchair more than a kilometer on a sandy path to take her child to school every day. Every single mother was a testimony to unconditional love. We were all struck by the dogged resilience of these mothers to overcome any obstacle as they refuse to give up the dream of a bright future for their children.

At the end of the assignment, what became evident was the correlation between disability and poverty. Tackling the reality of what it means to be a person with disability in Mozambique is a challenge. I have seen it through the eyes of children and their families, most of them barely surviving on less than two dollars a day.

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It was also clear that for these families, life is not defined by physical or mental ability, nor by financial status. Every family we met wanted one thing for their child:  to live an independent life and become a full, confident citizen of tomorrow.

Videos from the Children with Disabilities campaign

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