Ladies and gentlemen,
I want to welcome the Zero Project Youth Delegation, here for the first time at the UN Office at Vienna, as well as those joining us online from around the globe.
The global representation of the youth delegation is truly inspiring, with participants from 4 continents, spanning Latin America and Africa to East Asia and beyond.
As we celebrate today’s innovators and explore the future of disability and youth activism, let me remind you of a young pioneer from history.
In 1841, Louis Braille, the inventor of the Braille writing system, said that people with disabilities “must be treated as equals – and communication is the way we can bring this about.”
He was just 15 when he developed his idea that revolutionized communication for the deaf-blind and which is now used in over 130 languages.
I am glad that one of the Zero Project award winners is an initiative promoting the Scripor alphabet, based on an extension of the Braille system.
Such innovation shows how the past can inform and inspire young people in shaping the future.
Today, the online sphere and social media make it easier to communicate, share ideas, and build a digital bridge for young people with disabilities.
They can access learning resources, take online courses, and participate in political and social debates.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognized this potential. But it also found that young people with disabilities face specific barriers online.
Many websites lack the design requirements to ensure universal accessibility.
Terms and conditions, which provide important information about how our personal data is used, can be over-complicated and challenging for young people with an intellectual disability.
Ensuring an open, accessible, and secure digital future for all is vital to address these challenges.
Barriers are not limited to the online world, however.
Offline, young people with disabilities continue to face physical barriers, communication barriers, and employment barriers.
In 2021, UNICEF assessed that nearly 240 million children living with disabilities – or 1 in 10 children – were denied basic human rights.
They were almost 50 per cent less likely to have attended school or have basic reading and numeracy skills.
Education is key to develop the talent and ambitions of young people, to help them fulfill their aspirations and build their own future.
Lack of access to education, voting information, and mobility support can exclude young people with disabilities from social and political life entirely.
Deprived of opportunities, they may fall into isolation.
I am pleased that this year’s Zero Project award winners include a political leadership course for young people in Africa, Asia, and Ukraine, as well as a young leaders programme in Australia.
Investing in the political leaders of the future starts by promoting opportunities for all, especially the young and disabled, so that they may fulfill the principle of “nothing about us without us”.
This enables them to influence policies that affect their everyday lives.
Mental health, too, must be a priority.
Children with disabilities are 51 per cent more likely to feel unhappy and 41 per cent more likely to feel discriminated against.
Discrimination feeds social marginalization and isolation.
Such isolation can fuel mental health problems and substance abuse.
UNODC’s Youth Integrity project connects young people worldwide to share their experiences and ideas on promoting healthy lifestyles and preventing substance abuse.
The United Nations strives to mainstream youth inclusion in all aspects of its work, to build the foundations of future generations.
In 2017, the UN Secretary-General appointed a special envoy on youth, to hear young people’s concerns and needs, and bring them closer to the UN.
The role of the special envoy was expanded last year into an office dedicated to enhancing youth political participation and amplifying young voices in public life.
Here in Vienna, our Action Plan on Disability Inclusion opened our doors to young people with disabilities, providing internships and improved accessibility for colleagues with disabilities.
Guided by the principle of working with youth for youth, UNODC’s Strategy for 2021 to 2025 aims to build closer partnerships with youth organizations at headquarters and in the field.
As part of this strategy, last year I launched a UNODC youth office to engage young people in finding joint solutions to today’s challenges across all our thematic areas.
We are also using social media to connect with young people worldwide to explore ways of strengthening youth political participation and representation.
As we look to the future, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda offers a blueprint to ensure inclusion and access for all young people with disabilities.
Seven of the Sustainable Development Goals explicitly refer to persons with disabilities, including education and political inclusion.
Your ideas and voices will be important contributions in achieving these goals.
This will benefit not only young people but society as a whole. By investing in you today, we are investing in a future without barriers.