Yemen - Zuhoor* airstrike burns hands

Thoughts from the Global Disability Summit

It’s a tough confession to make, but I’m just not an enthusiast for international development summitry. Hard as I try, the pre-baked communiques, the political grandstanding and the endless flow of here-today-gone-tomorrow promises, induce a state somewhere between boredom and deep irritation. The Global Disability Summit, convened by the U.K., the Government of Kenya and the International Disability Alliance is a brilliant exception to the rule.

Disability is at the heart of some of the greatest challenges facing children around the world. The scale of that challenge is difficult to quantify, not least because the problem is often hidden from statistical surveys. One study in Pakistan found that around 11 per cent of children attending school were disabled – and disability rates were higher among the poor. ‘Official’ report rates were less than 2 per cent.

On some global estimates there are 150 million children living with disability, over 80 per cent of them in developing countries.

Many of these children are being robbed of their potential. Visit a classroom in any school in the U.K. and you’ll see children wearing glasses. Some may have hearing aids. Yet across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia millions of visually impaired or hard-of-hearing children face difficulties learning because they have no access to glasses and hearing aid. Few blind or profoundly deaf children will have access to specialist teachers or the materials that could transform their lives.

Of course, every disability creates its own distinctive challenges. Yet people living with disability tell life-stories that reflect common experiences of neglect, invisibility, isolation and stigma. Listening to those stories at the Disability Summit is a powerful reminder of what is at stake.

The International Disability Summit

The opening statement from Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary of State for International Development, set out a compelling agenda. Delivered partly in sign-language, she set out some practical and achievable delivery goals for the Department for International Development (DFID), ranging from scaled-up support for inclusive education in countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Pakistan, to Assisted Technology programmes that will deliver glasses, hearing aids and wheel chairs. The fact that only one-in-ten of the people needing these technologies currently have access is as shocking as it is fixable – and it’s great to seek the U.K. using its convening power to bring together UN agencies and other donors in a new Assisted Technology alliance.

The Summit has also provided a platform for some extraordinary individuals and groups fighting for disability rights, often in the face of government indifference or hostility. It is great to be in a summit with a real sense that those on the front-line were being listened to.

One source of disability that gets insufficient attention is the result of armed conflict. The use of high explosives in densely populated urban areas is a feature of today’s wars, from Syria to Iraq and Yemen. All too often children like Zuhoor* are the victims.

Caring for children on the front-line

Just ahead of the summit we announced the launch of a manual for treating children affected by blast injuries.

The product of collaboration between Save the Children, the Centre or Blast Injuries at Imperial College and doctors working on the front-line in Syria, the manual is a response to urgent need. When it comes to blast injuries, children are not smaller versions of adults. They have thinner skulls. Because they are shorter, their chests, necks and heads are likely to be closer to the blast – and they are almost three times as likely to experience shrapnel injury. Their skin is more vulnerable to burn effects. And because their bodies are growing, any amputation will require long term care and carefully managed prosthetic support. All too often medics trained to treat adults lack the specialist skills they need to support the recovery of children – and we hope the blast-injury manual will help fill the gap.

It’s not just physical injury that needs specialised care. Two weeks ago I visited our programmes in West Mosul, Iraq. Whole neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble when the city was retaken from ISIS. I spoke to one child after another struggling to cope with the trauma, anxiety, and grief associated with the loss of parents, siblings and friends, witnessing shocking scenes, and experiencing bombardment. Yet mental health provision and psychosocial support is conspicuous by its absence from the agenda for recovery in West Mosul.

One summit is not going to end the global disability crisis. But the London Global Disability Summit could mark the beginning of the end of the indifference surrounding that crisis – and it will provide an impetus to the growing movement led by disability campaigners.

*name changed to protect identity 

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