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A right to hear

Since 1989, much of the world has united behind the United Nations’ children’s rights. Yet still so many children aren’t getting access to treatment for deafness. Surely this infringes their rights to health and development opportunities.

Read more Last updated: 2018-04-03

Since 1989, much of the world has united behind the United Nations’ children’s rights. Yet still so many children aren’t getting access to treatment for deafness. Surely this infringes their rights to health and development opportunities.

Sigrun Saunderson by Sigrun Saunderson
In collection Kids
Reading duration: 4 minutes

“Children

want an ideal world, so that is what I depict in my books,” said Astrid Lindgren, the world-famous Swedish author whose incredibly popular children’s books were translated into around 90 different lang­uages during the 20th century.

There are arguably only a few locations in the world that come anywhere near an ideal children’s world and, of course, in reality there is no such thing. It’s something that cannot be achieved by any law in the world, though this doesn’t stop the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child from trying.

In 54 articles, it sets out what rights children all over the world should have, from the right to life to protection from exploitation and violence and special support for disability. Yet even though 195 countries have recognised these standards, children’s rights are still abused every single day.

This doesn’t just apply to war zones, where children are used as soldiers (according to UN reports there are hun­dreds of thousands of them worldwide), or even on tobacco plantations in the USA, where 12-year-olds slave away amid nicotine dust and pesticides, ent­irely within the law. Beyond this, the rights of children are also violated when, for example, between their school time, homework and ballet lessons, they have no time left just to play (the right to rest and leisure is established in article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child). Or when a child refugee in Germany is denied dental treatment. “Child refugees in Germany only get basic medical care, and treatment for dental cavities is not included in that,” explains Holger Hofmann from the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk, a German children’s charity. “By doing this, we make them second-class children.”

Quality of life

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is not only there to protect children from clear violations of their human rights, it is also there to ensure that they have an environment in which they can flour­ish. This right is sometimes less easy to realise: for example, when poor parents can’t afford to pay for their children to join their class for a school theatre trip – or when a child’s development is held back by health-related limitations such as hearing impairments. Not being able to hear properly makes it more difficult to interact with your environment, which in turn limits development opportunities, from friendship to education and career.

It’s estimated that around 32 million children worldwide suffer from severe to profound sensorineural hearing loss. If this goes untreated, or is inadequately treated, it can restrict a child’s physical and mental potential.

When a child is born deaf, their capacity to learn to speak is limited because in order to know how to speak, they first need to be able to hear how words are pronounced. This, in turn, affects communication with others, including peers and teachers. Even if such a hearing impairment doesn’t develop until later, research shows that overall it still impacts on a child’s ability to learn and consequently their career opportunities. Added to that, it can make it more difficult to form and maintain social contacts – another essential component of a child’s development.

Girl with two cochlear implants
Deaf children who receive cochlear implants as babies are much more likely to benefit from the same opportunities as their hearing peers.
© MED-EL

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child at a glance

Four basic principles

  1. The right to equal treatment and protection from discrimination
  2. The best interests of the child must always come first in decisions affecting children
  3. The right to the best possible opportunities for development
  4. Respect for the views of the child

Hearing solution

Every year, there are around 130,000 children worldwide born with profound deafness, who could benefit from a cochlear implant (CI). The earlier the surgery is carried out, the sooner they can begin to fulfil their potential. Sadly, nowhere near every child has access to this. While in many European countries around 90 per cent of children who could benefit from an implant get one, in the USA that figure is only 50 per cent and in Japan it is even lower, according to Donna L Sorkin, Executive Director of the American Cochlear Implant Alliance, in a statement for the journal ‘Cochlear Implants International’.

In 2009, the UK took a major step to help children with impaired hearing. Before, a deaf child‘s chances of receiving an implant, and when this would happen, depended on the policy of their local health authority, but there is now a unified approach nationwide. Deaf children are now given an implant in both ears – known as bilateral implants – from the age of nine months. Today, around 500 children in the UK get bilateral implants every year. In Austria, babies usually undergo the procedure bilaterally between six to eight months.

This not only improves quality of life but also a child’s chances of living a professionally and socially rewarding life. One 2011 study published in medical journal ‘Ear and Hearing’ suggests that by the late teens around 75 per cent of children with CIs attend mainstream schools, giving them the same educational opportunities as their hearing peers.

Hearing brings with it a number of child­ren’s rights: the right to the best possible health, education, participation, support for disability, and the right to freedom of information. All in all, it gives children a world that is a little nearer the ideal.

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