When UNICEF reached out, I immediately understood the importance of their Child Friendly Cities Initiative, and why I had to help ensure the initiative represented all children, including children who like me grow up with one or more disabilities. There are an estimated 40 million children with disabilities out of school, and they increasingly face risks and challenges from abuse, to bullying, to exclusion, neglect and low expectations. I remember navigating both sides of belonging and feeling like n outsider throughout my childhood and adolescence.
Because of this I was delighted to support the inclusion and access dimensions of UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities Initiative. Through the initiative we will support cities and communities worldwide to advance child rights at the local level. Today, the initiative reaches approximately 30 million children in 40 countries worldwide, and thanks to the work of my good friend Rosangela Bergman-Bieler, UNICEF’s Senior Advisor on Disability Rights, the initiative now has a strong access and inclusion dimension.
From 15–18 October 2019, UNICEF and the City of Cologne host the first international Child Friendly Cities Summit in Cologne, Germany. The Summit brings together mayors, local leaders, technical experts, children and young people from Child Friendly Cities around the world to discuss innovative approaches to advance child rights through local commitment and to identify and exchange good practices at the local level.
Thirty years since the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and thirteen years since the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, we now have a platform and a unique opportunity for mayors and local leaders to recommit to developing more inclusive strategies and build sustainable, child-friendly and barrier-free cities of tomorrow.
What’s most interesting for me however, is to see how child friendly efforts are advancing equity, access and inclusion for all children, especially children with disabilities.
Another international Summit — Why Should You Care?
Cities are doubling the urban footprint in the next 20 years. The rate of urbanization is transforming the way that we are working together, and the way that we are developing our economies. Over the next 30 years cities will shape virtually every aspect of global development, including the manner in which fundamental human rights for children are won and implemented.
Social exclusion, discrimination and marginalization pose significant difficulties to children with disabilities and their families in claiming their rights. Cities can mitigate equal access to opportunities in urban areas. According to the UN Sustainable Development Goals cities and societies need to foster human diversity, social inclusion, and be more resilient. Equality in municipal infrastructure, transportation, digital services, and programs like education, public health are becoming an increasing priority and the key for building truly inclusive and sustainable future for all.
Children are all among us and they are each different and full of potential. Childhood happens where children live— in their neighborhood, their community, their city. Today, nearly one in three people living in cities and towns is a child. By 2050, almost 7 in 10 of the world’s children will live in cities, and an estimated 1 in 10 of all people will be a child with a disability living in a city.
But not all children and young people growing up in towns and cities have the same chances in life. For many children with disabilities cities can offer great opportunities and hopes for a better future. For others, the experience is all too often one of poverty, inequality, environmental hazards and even conflict. UNICEF’s Child Friendly City Summit provides mayors, local leaders and civil society the chance to join hands and develop strategies to make their cities and communities a better place for children and young people.
Why this matters to me
I was born in Venezuela and I was denied a chance to go to my local school on a pure basis of having a disability. I was told that the teachers would not be able to educate me, that I should not bother, because when I grew up I wouldn’t be able to work. I was told I was an invalid, and that would not be able to contribute to society.
But these were all fundamental beliefs that lacked imagination. This lack of imagination was coupled with a belief that the city cannot include me, and that the built environment was fixed, it could not be changed or altered. I grew up thinking that I did not fit into this city. Being denied my fundamental right to an education also denied me a chance to feel like I belonged.
It wasn’t until my family moved to the United States where I really had a chance to experience what accessibility and inclusion meant for a child like me who lived with a disability. As I grew I saw how inclusion was planned for, respected, enforced, and translated into concrete actions. Access and inclusion in the United States is a civil rights issue. It was fought for an won by activists like Judith Heumann, Ed Roberts, and Justin Dart. It was built into federal legislation like the Rehab Act of 1973, and into city building codes, municipal ordinances and local level plans and policies.
I am an urban planner, but I am also a person with significant disabilities. My research and advocacy is informed by my lived experience. I personally understand the challenges of how cities can exclude or include those of us who deviate for a typical normative body. As a professor, as a public official, and as an advisor to local and national governments I see firsthand the effects that inadequate architecture, inaccessible transportation systems, and of outdated attitudes have on children with disabilities and their families. These urban shortcomings affect our collective potential and what we can achieve can accomplish.
Why We Need to Build Cities for All Children
The issue of child friendly cities cannot be under stressed or forgotten. The issue is at the root of inequality and fundamental human rights. It touches economic prosperity, and will define the future that we want to build and what children deserve to grow into full citizens.
My organization World Enabled is proud to support UNICEF’s Child Friendly City Initiative. We believe this initiative is fundamental for all children, but also for the 1 billion people in the world that live with disabilities but also for older persons that live in cities. By championing the principles of Universal Design, our Cities for All Global Compact and Campaign is scaling access and inclusion on a global level. We seek to incentivize and transform 100 cities to be more inclusive, accessible and resilient for all. That’s why we will include children with disabilities, we want to benefit from their potential from their dreams from their creativity.
With our partners, we will be strengthening communities of practice, seminars, and most of all leveraging existing global commitments to ensure the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, (that I had the great honor of helping to draft and implement), the New Urban Agenda, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals align and have clear urban and local level metrics for success on access and inclusion for all, including children with disabilities.
Making a Commitment to Access and Inclusion for All
We all have a point in our lives when we need to realize that we all need some help. Children need that help, but as we age, we also need help. The Child Friendly Cities Initiative lets us be clear that we are accountable to all children, and by doing so we are accountable to building the kind of cities we all want to live in.
We are accountable to each other and we are accountable to making sure that by the time we deliver on the 2030 Agenda, that we have left no one behind. I am eager to connect with colleagues in the Child Friendly Cities Initiative, and look forward hearing the results of this important Summit.
The responsibility lies with local governments, civil society and all of us to lay the necessary foundations for cities and communities to fulfill the rights and needs of their youngest citizens. Only by making cities and communities places where children feel safe, heard, nurtured and able to flourish can we ensure a bright future — for every child.