Editor’s note: Michael J. Nyenhuis is the President and CEO of UNICEF USA. He previously served on USAID’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Assistance and served as board chair of the Integral Alliance, a global network of faith-based non-governmental organizations. Sherrie Westin is president of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational group behind “Sesame Street.” The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. see more reviews on CNN
Sesame Workshop recently introduced Ameera, a wise and knowledgeable 8-year-old Muppet girl who loves science and uses a wheelchair and forearm crutches due to a spinal cord injury.
Ameera helps represent nearly 1 in 10 children with disabilities worldwide. Among the outpouring of messages welcoming the character, Sesame Workshop received a special concern from UNICEF: Ameera was not using a wheelchair suitable for her needs.
Ameera can walk using crutches, meaning she has good balance and strong arms. His wheelchair design should be an active, compact chair with a low back, no armrests, and recessed footrests. Instead, Ameera has a wheelchair with a large folding structure, which is not the best fit for her.
This was not news to Sesame. The creators deliberately gave Ameera a chair that would reflect the reality of children growing up in areas affected by conflict and crisis, as these children are a major part of the audience that Ameera aims to reach.
It was a topic of discussion. Should the wheelchair reflect Ameera’s reality or accurately represent her needs? Is it more powerful to show the world as it is, or as it should be?
The latest data shows that more than 2.5 billion people will need one or more assistive technologies, such as wheelchairs or hearing aids, as of May 2022 according to the World Health Organization-UNICEF Global Report on Assistive Technology. It is expected to reach 3.5 billion by 2050, the report found.
Access to assistive technologies is a human right and a prerequisite for equal participation and opportunity, but most people do not have sufficient access, especially in areas affected by conflict, displacement and other crises.
Sesame Workshop and UNICEF agreed that Ameera’s wheelchair was central to a larger discussion about depicting the current reality of access to assistive technologies while advocating for change.
Representation is key to ending stigma and discrimination against people with disabilities and promoting understanding and inclusion. That’s why Sesame created Ameera as a multi-dimensional character, with her humor, interests and bright personality that make her a natural leader among her Muppet friends. These character choices were as deliberate as the design of his wheelchair.
While developing Ameera, Sesame and his advisors discussed inclusion as viewers of the show “Ahlan Simsim,” which means “Welcome Sesame” in Arabic.
It is the award-winning local version of “Sesame Street” in the Middle East and North Africa. Through “Ahlan Simsim,” Ameera has been introduced to millions of children across the region, including children who have been displaced and live in host communities, many of whom lack access to appropriate assistive technology.
Ameera also features a new library of videos designed to provide playful learning to children affected by conflict and crisis around the world. Many of these children have life-changing injuries and need access to appropriate and affordable assistive technology, but these products are beyond the reach of most.
Other realities were also considered by the consultants. For example, a counselor who previously distributed wheelchairs in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan noted that parents often requested larger wheelchairs because they wanted equipment their children could continue to use as they grew older. Families also needed wheelchairs to carry water or things.
Ameera’s wheelchair thus reflects the children’s world as it is: one in which too many young people have inadequate or ill-fitting assistive equipment. At the same time, Sesame and UNICEF want to advocate for the world as it should be, so that all children with disabilities have access to affordable and appropriate assistive technology.
Children’s access to these technologies often determines whether they go to school, play, participate in civic life and, ultimately, work. Realizing these rights is central to the lives of children and their families, as well as benefiting communities and societies at large.
One of UNICEF’s priorities is to work with governments and other partners to improve access to assistive technologies, from directly helping children and families receive equipment to helping countries understand the broader needs of citizens, refugees and other people with disabilities.
The recent WHO-UNICEF Global Report on Assistive Technology also provides recommendations for people-centred, multi-sectoral action to improve access to assistive technologies for all who need them.
As a Muppet with a physical disability, Ameera was designed to reflect the lived experiences of children. In too many cases, among these experiences, the world needs to meet the needs of children with disabilities.
Full representation means talking about this reality, even as we continue to work toward a day when all children with disabilities have access to the appropriate assistive technology they need to thrive.