Special Needs, Special Rights

Tim Shriver:  Well in the last 20 years there have been great changes for people with intellectual disabilities.  Many countries have passed laws that opened schools to children with intellectual disabilities.  It's hard to believe, but just a few generations ago, a few decades ago, many children with disabilities were never allowed to go to school.  Schools would tell parents no, there is no place in this school for your child.

So schools have opened up.  In some places, employers have begun to see a person with an intellectual disability as someone who can contribute, someone who will be a loyal worker, someone who will be a reliable worker, someone who will help create a positive environment at work.  So employers have begun the long process of opening their doors of opportunity to people with intellectual disabilities.

And healthcare institutions have begun to study the various forms of intellectual disability and begun to respond with new kinds of treatments, new kinds of interventions, new kinds of therapies that not only help prevent those forms of intellectual disability that are preventable, but also, and maybe more importantly, add to the quality of life of those who have an intellectual disability and want to contribute.

So changes have been positive in most countries.  Do we still have work to do?  Alas.  Yes.  All the positive changes in employment, in healthcare, community living, education, are still unfortunately isolated examples.  Most children with intellectual disabilities never go to school.  More than 90 percent never have a job.  Almost all of them never have real friends.  Very few still ever get to play on a sports team, ever get to join a community organization, ever get to stand up in front of a crowd and say, "Look what I've done.  Look how well I've done.  Give me a chance at a medal.  Give me a chance at a cup.  Give me a chance at success."  That experience is still tragically the rarest of experiences in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities and their families.

Our job is to change that.

Tim Shriver:  Well the biggest barrier facing people with intellectual disabilities in almost every country in the world is fear and misunderstanding, negative attitudes.  People still believe that a child with an intellectual disability is somehow lesser.  So they say to parents, "Oh, I'm sorry you have such a child."  They say to the child, either in words or non-verbally, "I'm so sorry that you're having to live such a tragic life."  It couldn't be in many respects a further thing from the truth, but that bias translates into a lack of healthcare because people think why bother giving healthcare to these children.

It translates into a lack of special educators because people think why bother with special education, we have to train and educate other kids.  It translates into a lack of employment opportunities because people think why bother hiring this person, they're never contribute anything. 

The biggest barrier is the negative attitude.  The result of negative attitudes, our whole systems, whole social structures that too frequently say to a child with intellectual disability, "You are not welcome."  Our job is to reverse those negative attitudes and create communities that say, "You are welcome.  Show me what you can do.  You can contribute to the life of this community, to the life of this country."

Topic:  Article 23 of the CRC.

Tim Shriver:  Well I think the CRC [Convention on the Rights of the Child] is sufficient as far as it goes.  It's a piece of paper.  It's a document.  It's a government document.  The reason question is not is the wording right, the real question is the implementation right.  Where are the people?  Where are the armies of citizens who will take the challenge of the CRC and make it come to life.  The real urgency of now is not to have signatures on the bottom of the page, but to have people in communities who are doing the work of overturning the attitudes and ensuring that the rights of the child with an intellectual disability are protected.

Where are the teachers who will understand that the CRC is an invitation to them to open their classrooms.  Where are the principles and the educators who will see in the CRC a challenge to them to make sure their school has special educators and other resources.  Where are the mayors and the chiefs and the local officials who will say the CRC is a challenge to my community to become an icon of acceptance, to become the place where people want to visit to see what it means to be inclusive.  This army -- where are the parents?  The young people?  The religious leaders?  The civic leaders, who themselves through every little fiber of the community can begin to weave in that there is a place for the person with special needs.  In my church, in my synagogue, in my temple, in my school, in my institution, in my place of work, in my work, on my playground, in my park.

When that happens, the CRC [Convention on the Rights of the Child] will no longer be on paper, it will have come to life.  That will be the measure of its success and the moment of celebration. 

Recorded on: October 19, 2009

According to Tim Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, legislation in the last twenty years has done much to open opportunities to children with intellectual disabilities.

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