Government recently took the decision to sign and ratify the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

But while that those address many issues, it is not a fix all: the challenges Belize's disabled population faces are profound.

In a special feature, Janelle Chanona found out just how complex the issues are:…

Janelle Chanona Reporting
Globally, an estimated five hundred million persons are disabled. More than eighty percent live in poor countries. And more than fifty million are children.

In the Central American nation of Belize, more than thirty-five thousand persons are believed to disabled. But officials can only estimate how many of those persons are children.

Nadine Perrault, Regional Child Protection Officer - UNICEF
"The problem is knowing the real number of children with disabilities because those children are mostly invisible, they stay at home and communities are hiding them...you don't see them in school, you don't see them in health centres and this is the major problem."

According to Nadine Perrault, Regional Child Protection Officer for the United Nation's Children's Fund, fear, shame, stigma and discrimination has led to a sad state of affairs.

Nadine Perrault, Regional Child Protection Officer - UNICEF
"Only a few countries have made efforts to put those children in the forefront and have inclusive policy that includes the child with disability."

"They will be left alone without any kind of support, without any kind of activity, they will be just there but what people don't understand is that people with disabilities not only do they have rights but they are also like everybody else...they can do things and they have the right to express themselves."

In 2005 Nurse Laura Longsworth conducted a situational analysis of disabled children in Belize. In addition to a breakdown in the policy and monitoring structure for disability services, Longsworth's findings also revealed disabled children were still being "tied up", "regularly beaten" and "vulnerable to abuse and neglect".

Nurse Laura Longsworth, Health Systems Manager Consultant
"Children were isolated, not having access to care and meals because of their behaviour the family would probably leave them in a room by themselves or in a wide open space with no one to look after them."

"The situation is a difficult one because there are families with more than one kids with disabilities. And without a formal structure, how, what do we do, what do those families do? How do they manage? Because it's difficult."

Longsworth's study recommended a wide range of initiatives in education, health and child protection and poverty reduction programs. But two years later, the lack of disability support services were disturbingly obvious.

Doris Staine, Student
"Me love school."

In September 2007, Doris Staine came to national attention after her parents complained to the media that three different primary schools had refused to accept the child because spina bifida has confined Doris to a wheelchair.

Licia Staine, Doris' Mother
"I would feel more proud and happy to see that she is in a school instead of being home doing nothing."

That determination and tremendous public support compelled the Ministry of Education to make infrastructural changes to one of the schools to accommodate Doris' wheelchair. And in that classroom, Doris now dreams of a brighter future.

Doris Staine, Student
"I wah be a dacta because I wah help people whe sick."

But Staine's story is not an isolated case. Belize has yet to ratify the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. No law specifically provides for accessibility for persons with disabilities or protects them from job discrimination. Disabled Belizeans of all ages continue to struggle for inclusion.

Kim Simpliss Barrow, Special Envoy for Women and Children
"If we don't take care of our children, it says a lot about our society and the people that we are."

Special envoy for Women and Children, Kim Simplis Barrow has become an important voice for disability support services. Since her appointment in 2008, Barrow has made it her mission to make improving the quality of life for disabled children a national priority.

Kim Simpliss Barrow, Special Envoy for Women and Children
"I would want to see children happy with them being who they are and with children with disabilities, it's accepting this is who I am but there's so much I can give you even though I have a disability."

Many innovative programs have been designed to support persons with different abilities but few were ever implemented. In 2000, a lack of resources led the Government of Belize to divest disability services in the hopes that a non-governmental body would attract much needed funding. But the plan backfired as structured services, policy and monitoring fell apart. In the aftermath, in 2002, the Community Agency for Rehabilitation and Education, CARE, was formed by concerned citizens.

Evan Cowo, Director, CARE
"Parents were seeking services and the services were very little. So immediately as CARE began working in the various field areas, there was a lot of work, the demand was there."

CARE has accomplished marked success in providing much needed support services to disabled persons using the innovative community based rehabilitation model. However, with less than ten field rehabilitation officers, the organization's resources are woefully inadequate to meet the demands of the thousands in need. For CARE director Evan Cowo, support and empowerment services for disabled persons is a must.

Evan Cowo, Director, CARE
"Because in the near future the way things are changing they will be the ones that funding agencies will listen to, they will be the ones that have go and lobby the Government to put ramps and make changes to buildings, put policies, this is the Belize that I want to see."

That's also the Belize Kim Barrow wants to see. And as part of her plans, she's come up with a creative idea...the construction of a children's centre.

Kim Simpliss Barrow, Special Envoy for Women and Children
"Somewhere that they will want to go every day because they are able to go and explore and see things differently and hear music and just be themselves."

Evan Cowo, Director, CARE
"The centre will definitely bridge the gap with the medical model and the community based rehabilitation that we do. CARE has a strong component of CBR. By having this centre, we'll be able to get services from physical therapists, occupational therapists and other professionals that will be come to the centre and the parents will be able to bring their children and they will be able to access services that CBR does not bring them."

And because the centre is designed to erase fear, stigma and discrimination, it will serve the able and the differently abled.

Kim Simpliss Barrow, Special Envoy for Women and Children
"So that these children can be exposed to a child with disabilities. In 8:47 Respect, it's a huge, huge thing. As human beings, if we know how to respect ourselves, we'll be able to respect others. Out 8:59 Dignity, that they deserve that. We have to be the voice for those kids. We as adults have to be the ones advocating for those children."

Nadine Perrault, Regional Child Protection Officer - UNICEF
"This is the saddest part... that a lot of societies in a lot of countries, they do not just care which means that the commitment is not there, the will is not there, the desire to do something is not there and this is the saddest part."

But in these dire financial times, financial support is critical in Belize's national, structured response to include persons with disabilities in all aspects of society.

Nurse Laura Longsworth
"Resources are a major issue and I think that if there was a coming together of everybody to identify sources of funding that would support the initiative that would be better."

Nadine Perrault, Regional Child Protection Officer - UNICEF
"Persons with disabilities, regardless of the disability, and I'm also talking about mental, very severe mental disability, they have something to say and they know they have something to say and we are there to give them this space for them to voice their rights and to be able to live, like anybody else."

Kim Simpliss Barrow, Special Envoy for Women and Children
"I think it's important that we look at our children and we afford them the opportunities that they deserve because children are our future, but they are also our present."

To find out how you can support this cause, please contact the office of the wife of the Prime Minister. Reporting for 7 News I am Janelle Chanona.

And while the convention on persons with disabilities has been signed, no law specifically provides for accessibility for persons with disabilities or protects them form job discrimination.

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