Who is the UN for?
The UN headquarters in New York is an inspiring place to visit. There are lots of pictures, busts and statues of the great and the good, along with informative galleries highlighting their priorities in addressing the world’s most pressing problems.
Most prominent is the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Visitors walk over them to reach the entrance, they are displayed on the walls and they form the central exhibit on the ground floor. The Sustainable Development Goals include no poverty, quality education, affordable and clean energy and climate action. There is a moving description of sexual violence in conflict, motivational quotes from young activists and of course lots of objectives on Climate Change. I carefully studied each display, concluding that the world is in safe hands here and I felt admiration for everything the United Nations stands for.
I took the escalators down to the official UN bookshop to peruse volumes on poverty and hunger, racism and intolerance, global conflict, women rights and gender equality. I noticed toys, souvenirs and even the UN headquarters made of Lego, but something was missing…
There was no reference to people with disabilities of any kind. If my students visited the UN, they wouldn’t see a single image looking back at them that they could relate to and yet they form 15% of the population (around 1 billion people). In fact, I could not find a single use of the word ‘disability’ anywhere. I searched for displays about people with disabilities, for books about their achievements, their role-models, heroes and reformers. I wanted to learn of their journey and their struggle, and the actions taken to address their plight across the world today.
Certain I had missed something, I walked back through the exhibits. I found Sustainable Goal 10: ‘Reduce inequality within and among countries.’ It is concerned with income inequality rather than disability but at least it was accompanied by a picture of a young boy using a walking frame, with his back to the camera.
No adults with disabilities, no faces and not even the word ‘disability’ across the entire visitor area.
I finally found the elusive word displayed in the UN’s restaurant. It said, “Plastic straws available per request for persons with disabilities”. I often refer to my students as the ‘once-forgotten society’. At the United Nations they remain forgotten unless they need a climate-damaging plastic straw.
There was no awareness, no action and no campaign for inclusion, equality and education. I will soon visit a country in which learning-disabled children are still tied up in their family home. They have no education, no freedom and no hope. What is the UN doing to challenge ignorance, prejudice and injustice around the world on behalf of these children?
I will bring our Music Man Project students to the UN in 2021 and they will show who they are! Perhaps under their picture the UN could write, “From the Asylum to the Palladium, The Royal Albert and Broadway, musicians with developmental disabilities presented to the UN, 2021”.
At least they will be seen by future visitors to this important global organisation.