Uzbekistan’s first Special Olympics challenges stigma against children with disabilities

Over 90 young athletes from all over Uzbekistan came together in Navoi late last month to compete in a historic celebration, the country’s first-ever National Special Olympics.

Held from 23 to 26 March, the event was a follow-up to the Central Asian Special Olympics, which had been hosted by Uzbekistan with support from UNICEF and other partners last year in Tashkent.

Children’s needs overlooked

UNICEF Uzbekistan Representative Reza Hossaini commended the athletes and their families for their courage, telling them: “You and your families are truly a role model for all children and communities in Uzbekistan. By participating in this Olympics, you are also challenging the stigma attached to disability.”

The competition aimed not only to provide opportunities for personal growth, but also to promote integration of those with disabilities in their communities.

The Government of Uzbekistan has expressed its full commitment to supporting and protecting children with disabilities. In her inauguration speech, Deputy Prime Minister Ergash Shaismatov reaffirmed that commitment and extended government support to the continuation of Special Olympics events.

Still, the institutionalization of many children remains an issue. As a remnant of the Soviet system of government care, children with disabilities and their families are often stigmatized. Living in institutions instead of with their families, these children often find that their needs are overlooked.

Mainstreaming in schools

According to a UNICEF-supported assessment study by the Social Adaptation Centre, the number of registered children with disabilities in Uzbekistan in 2004 reached 125,000 – an increase of 50,000 in eight years. Worsening economic conditions have been cited as a possible factor in this increase, with families no longer able to provide adequate care for their children with special needs.

Of the 20,000 children with disabilities who are currently institutionalized, the study found, many could live with their families if only the proper support systems were put in place and inclusive education facilities provided. And among children with disabilities studying in special boarding schools, about 10 per cent could be integrated into mainstream schools.

In September 2005, the Ministry of Public Education issued a decree instructing all education departments to strengthen their measures on mainstreaming children with disabilities. Since then UNICEF has closely collaborated with the education authorities to implement the decree; last year, 228 children with disabilities were enrolled in mainstream public school classes here.

In one innovative programme, families have been encouraged to bring their children with disabilities to a community-based centre called the Sunday School. Each child attending the school has limitations that currently prevent attendance at a regular school. Sunday School is about socialization and learning to live independently in a community. For some children, it is a stepping stone toward attending a mainstream school with their peers.

Need for alternatives

UNICEF Uzbekistan’s programme for improving the lives of children with disabilities, and the lives of their families, has a multi-purpose strategy. Prevention of disability is at the heart of the programme, along with developing and implementing plans for de-institutionalization and inclusive education.

In addition, by launching a major report last October on the situation of children with disabilities in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS), UNICEF helped its government counterparts raise public awareness about the need for alternatives to institutionalizing children.

According to the report by UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre, ‘Children and Disability in Transition in CEE/CIS’, the total number of children registered as disabled across the region’s 27 countries tripled after the collapse of the Soviet Union – from about 500,000 in 1990 to 1.5 million in 2000. An additional 1 million children with disabilities are thought to be unregistered. Most of these children continue to face lives in segregated institutions, suffering from stigma and discrimination.

Events like the recent National Special Olympics in Uzbekistan are part of a continuing effort to end that suffering and allow children with disabilities to reach their full potential.