UN Conference of States Parties to the UNCRPD, June 2014 — panel session

18 July 2014

Our chief executive, Clare Pelham, spoke at panel session on youth with disabilities on 12 June 2014. The video of this speech is available on the United Nations website (from 1:44:00). The text of the speech as delivered follows.

Thank you Mr Chairman, and your excellencies and distinguished guests. Let me first thank you and all the leadership of this event for bringing young people with disabilities to the table as an equal partner alongside member states, UN agencies and civil society. Because as discussions around the Sustainable Development Goals progress it is absolutely vital that we hear first-hand from them about their insights and their experiences. And in a moment I’m going to introduce you to Ashura Michael, who is an incredibly talented and fierce, if I may use that term, young woman from Africa. 

But before I do, I’d like to ask you to do two things. One of them very hard, and one of them very easy. First of all I’d like you to look for something that’s missing. And that’s quite hard to do, and I will explain. Secondly I’d like to ask you to do something very easy, and that’s to remember a single phrase: ‘you don’t have to be famous to be unforgettable’. And I will be testing you at the end, I promise.

So I asked you to look for something that’s missing. And I’m sure you’ll have worked out by now what that is. We heard earlier that there are more than 200 million young disabled people in the world today, and at Leonard Cheshire we believe that they are one of the most marginalised and hard to reach groups in the world. We’ve heard that those young people want almost exactly the same as their non-disabled peers. But what does distinguish them is that their needs, their choices and their preferences, unlike those of their peers, are largely unmet. They’re rarely included in mainstream development programmes and they’re rarely able to access mainstream transport, education, jobs, justice — the list could go on and on. Young disabled people are effectively excluded from their communities.

Everywhere you look they’re missing. They’re simply not there. And the interesting thing is, why is there no outcry? Our hearts recently went out to 200 young girls who went missing from their school in Nigeria. And rightly, every effort is being made to search for them. Why do our hearts not go out to the 200 million young disabled people who are everywhere missing from our lives and societies? They are missing. Everywhere we look for them, they are not there. Why do we not make every effort so search for them and to include them in civil society? 

At Leonard Cheshire we’re trying to recognise this gap, partly through direct action, by implementing programmes with our partner organisations in 54 countries around the world that will include young disabled people in education, in jobs and in health. But much, much more important we’re doing it through campaigning. We’re empowering young people to be their own advocates. Our Young Voices network, and Ashura is a representative of that network, includes at least 1,200 young campaigners from around the world working in 21 countries across Asia, across Africa and across the Americas. They are the living proof that ‘you don’t have to be famous to be unforgettable’, because, believe me, if you’ve ever met any of these Young Voices you would never forget them. 

They are influencing governments and policy makers all around the world. They are fighting for their rights. They have helped, by working with authorities in China, to make the Forbidden City in Beijing accessible to people with physical disabilities. They have helped to make sign language an official language in Zimbabwe through their campaigning. They are really seriously hard to say no to. I think I better stop there and let Ashura speak for herself. 

But just to remind you, everywhere we look, there are 200 million young disabled people who are missing. And you don’t have to be famous to be unforgettable, as Young Voices so vibrantly and vividly demonstrate. You can be a role model for empowerment and participation through your own advocacy. And that’s why at Leonard Cheshire we’re strongly calling, post-2015, for there to be a specific goal for young people’s empowerment and participation.

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