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Indigenous Children With Disabilities Have Rights Too

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"Kekan Muan." These words uttered by a schoolmate in her native Tetidu language continue to haunt Ipul decades later. "Cripple, who do you think you are?"

Ipul had polio and has been in a wheelchair most of her life. When I met her during the UN Indigenous Peoples' Forum in May, she spoke of the discrimination and exclusion that she and other children with disabilities experienced in her community in Manus, Papua New Guinea. She told me about a boy with a physical disability whose family was told he couldn't attend school because the building had no accessible toilets. His family had to provide a disability-accessible toilet for the school and maintain it until he graduated from high school.

Thousands of miles away, in the indigenous community of Totolapan in Mexico, Olga faced similar challenges as a child with polio. She required leg braces which reached the height of her waist, forcing her to stand up all day once she had them on. When she was five years old, her family moved to Mexico City, where she attended a Spanish-speaking school. Every day during recess, Olga's teacher put her under a tree in the schoolyard, isolating her from the other children, and Olga just watched them play. No one ever came to play with her. Olga thought she had been segregated from other students as a punishment for not understanding Spanish. Only after she'd become an adult did she realize that the teacher had been trying to protect her from getting injured by her classmates.

Olga feared going to school so much that she threw herself out of her wheelchair and begged her parents not to make her go. Her father told her, "The school is not going to adapt to you. You have to adapt to the school." Olga wiped away tears as she told me about the exclusion and humiliation she endured more than two decades ago.

Sadly, the situation isn't much different today.

A recent study by the Mexican Human Rights Commission found that about 51 percent of children preferred not to attend school with indigenous children. Nearly 48 percent said they would not want to live with a person with disability. These views reflect the multiple layers of discrimination faced by indigenous people with disabilities.

From Mexico to Papua New Guinea, indigenous children with disabilities face a range of barriers to getting an education, including abuse, bullying and lack of accessibility. A new landmark report issued in May by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) revealed that children with disabilities in indigenous communities frequently suffer two distinct educational disadvantages. First, both families of children with disabilities and school authorities often do not permit children with disabilities to attend school. Second, those children with disabilities who are permitted to attend school often have teachers with inadequate training on how best to integrate children with disabilities in the classroom.

So how can we learn from the experiences of Ipul and Olga and turn things around for indigenous children with disabilities?

UNICEF advocates that governments need to ensure that children with disabilities can attend mainstream schools in their communities. This will require training for teachers and adjustments to school buildings to make classrooms and toilets accessible. More than half of the world's governments have adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a human rights treaty that confirms that children with disabilities have the same rights and freedoms as all other children, regardless if they come from indigenous communities.

Olga and Ipul are adults now and, with support from the Disability Rights Advocacy Fund, are speaking out about their experiences in UN venues in an effort to try to help other indigenous children with disabilities who are still suffering the same isolation, discrimination and barriers that traumatized them as children. But governments need to do more than sign treaties to right these wrongs. They need to break down the barriers for indigenous children with disabilities and to work with parents to make sure that each child's needs are met.