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How next week’s Global Disability Summit can deliver for adolescents

Written by Nicola Jones

While adolescence as a unique ‘window of opportunity’ and disability and inclusivity have all moved up the development agenda in recent years, the needs of adolescents with disabilities have largely been ignored. Yet they are far more likely than those without disabilities to live in poverty and to be denied their basic rights to education, health, play and general wellbeing. The estimated costs of inaction are staggering, for individuals and national economies. In China, for example, each additional year of education can raise a child with a disability’s income in later life by 8%.

During the first-ever Global Disability Summit in London next week, it is critical that government, donor, private sector and non-profit delegates commit to and be held accountable for delivering an integrated package of support for adolescents with disabilities across development and humanitarian settings. Our evidence – from the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) research involving surveys and case studies with more than 600 adolescents with disabilities and their caregivers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Jordan and the State of Palestine – tells us that integrated action is urgently needed.

This means genuinely inclusive education, market-relevant skills-building, social protection support that is disability-adjusted, and access to technology and innovation. It also means addressing key health information and service gaps, tackling heightened vulnerabilities to violence and improving access to justice, especially for adolescent girls with disabilities and those living in conflict-affected settings.

Four key themes: dignity, education, economic empowerment, tech

The Summit’s four thematic priorities offer a welcome focus. Here are some examples of what they mean for adolescents:  

  • Priority 1: dignity and respect for all. Stigma, discrimination and restricted mobility all mean adolescents with disabilities often experience social isolation. Some young Syrian refugees we interviewed in Jordan had not set foot outside for many months – and felt they were invisible to the outside world. 
  • Priority 2: inclusive education. An estimated one third of out-of-school children globally have a disability. Clearly we need to get better at making education genuinely inclusive, with young people equipped with the specialised skills they need to thrive. Pupils in special needs classes in Ethiopia told us how much they appreciated the opportunity to develop braille and sign language skills; for years they had been able to communicate only the basics to their families and communities. They also underscored how critical the psycho-emotional support from their special needs teachers were – and the myriad challenges they faced when moving to integrated classrooms with no specialised support.
  • Priority 3: economic empowerment and social protection. Adolescents with disabilities have less access to skills development, credit, productive assets and decent employment. They also have limited access to adequate social protection. This was brought home to me particularly powerfully by young Syrian refugees with disabilities in Jordan, who were receiving basic cash assistance but were often confined to their homes due to transport costs and a dearth of information about specialised education and health facilities, or skills building and training programmes. 
  • Priority 4: harnessing technology and innovation. For adolescents with disabilities – especially in conservative societies and humanitarian contexts – tools like WhatsApp or YouTube can enable access to information and connections to peers, including to those with similar impairments and shared experiences.

What’s missing from the thematic priorities?

Surprisingly, the Summit’s thematic priorities are largely silent on health – including sexual and reproductive health – and on violence.

But these are critical for adolescents.

Adolescents with disabilities are more likely to experience violence, and face challenges in reporting abuse and accessing protection, support and justice. One 17-year-old girl we talked to in Bangladesh said, ‘If girls walk through the streets, many unruly boys make weird facial gestures and do ‘eve teasing’ [sexual harassment] … I walk straight past and don’t say anything, but sometimes I cry at home.’

Meanwhile stigma, cost and physical accessibility issues mean access to primary, disability-specific and sexual and reproductive health care lags behind for young people with disabilities in poorer and middle-income countries. As service providers in Gaza highlighted, ‘Their rights to know about sexual and reproductive health are ignored and undermined by all.’

Five recommendations for integrated action

Policy and programmatic action need to capitalise on the window of opportunity adolescence presents to ensure no young person is left behind. We need to prioritise five key actions:

  1. Commit to an integrated package of tailored support, including access to services encompassing education, health (especially sexual and reproductive health), nutrition, protection from violence, recreation and safe spaces, skills-building and social protection.  
  2. Address intersecting disadvantages by paying greater attention to impairment type, gender, age and context in programme design and implementation.  
  3. Provide support to caregivers by ensuring them access to tailored information as well as to support networks.
  4. Tackle data and evidence gaps to support programming, especially through participatory research and evaluations of what works for which adolescents in different contexts.
  5. Promote better coordination among policy actors and service providers, through the creation of:
  • Strong national bodies to ensure effective multi-sectoral collaboration, cross-referrals to complementary services, and information sharing and lesson learning among multi-stakeholder groups.
  • Disability markers to which donors would be held accountable in terms of investments in programming for young people with disabilities (such as an OECD disability marker).