My name is Leslie Tikotikoca, and I am a young man living with disability. I acquired my disability at the age of 13 years when I got into an accident, whereby my right leg was amputated. Growing up through the years, I have noticed how few opportunities and programs are accessible for us youths living with disabilities.
I have seen the lack of youth groups practice inclusion programs, and venues and reading materials not being accessible to the different types of disabilities – including blindness, deafness, physical and psychosocial disability. This lack of inclusiveness stops us from getting the same opportunities and services.
As a disability advocate, I assist to raise awareness about persons with disabilities – to show their contribution to the development of society and to foster respect for rights, dignity, and needs. This advocacy for the rights, concerns, and aspirations of persons with disabilities takes many forms, including working with government agencies and other authorities who can influence the law to make a more fair and just society for people like me.
Young people with disabilities have dreams, interests, and ambitions for the future. However, we face persistent social disadvantages, including stigma and prejudice, as well as the routine failure to incorporate disability into buildings plan and program designs. Social economics and legal obstacles continue to limit our access to health care and education.
People in the community regularly think people with disabilities don’t have sexual desire or romantic emotions themselves. Perhaps it is because sexual and reproductive health and rights is a taboo topic, but it is wrong not to include persons with disabilities in sexual and reproductive health and rights education and services. We must never assume that a person with disability cannot have families or should therefore not be allowed to be part of such discussions. This leads to people living with disability receiving too little information about puberty, sexuality, and healthy relationships, which opens doors to new vulnerabilities such as sexual exploitation. When persons with disabilities have a family, the community often asks “how did they do it?”. This denies us our human rights to live or choose to be married and have children - and our dignity.
Last year, I received an email from Pacific Disability Forum, informing me that I was chosen to represent youths living with disabilities in the Pacific at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25: Accelerating the Promise of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). I was asked to speak on the youth signature session: “My Body, My Life, My World: 1.8 Billion Reasons Why.”
As a youth with disability, ICPD25 was totally a new field; despite my advocacy in Fiji, I had never been exposed to any of this type of dialogue. It was good to participate in the Pacific ICPD25 Youth Consultation, which aimed to understand the progress made and gaps that remain with fulfilling the ICPD agenda. Particular focus was placed on government commitment and sharing good practices with other participants. Myself and 10 Pacific youth that represented ICP25 in this region built networks and developed recommendations about sexual and reproductive health and rights to be inclusive for all youths - regardless of whether they are able-bodied or living with disabilities. These were taken forward to the Nairobi Summit.
The experience of the Nairobi Summit at ICPD25 was inspirational. My colleague, who is vision impaired, and I were the only youths with disabilities from the Pacific ICPD25. We shared with the Pacific Youth team at ICPD25 our ideas and plans for the way forward to ensure access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services that are understood and available for young and old people. We agreed on a common goal: For everyone to understand and have knowledge about puberty, and that when this happens, it is normal. We wanted to make sure this knowledge could be used for people to and make appropriate and healthy choices in their sexual lives, and that any services or education about sexual and reproductive health and rights is inclusive to all people, including persons living with disabilities. As a result of this advocacy, there have been talks with UNFPA Pacific about conducting trainings for persons with disabilities to improve their understanding about sexual and reproductive health rights.
My experience at the Nairobi Summit at ICPD25 has informed me and really encouraged me to see and raise my voice about issues on inclusiveness, whereby we, as young people with disabilities, have equal access to services in sexual and reproductive health and rights. It has also informed my current work with the Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation.
Through my work, I am coordinating a programme called “Access to Justice”. Which has allowed me to go to communities around Fiji to speak and train persons with disabilities in understanding their rights under the Disability Act. Using the skills they have developed, participants are able to support the realization of their rights and responsibilities together and advocate for inclusive participation in all aspects of social-economic, and cultural life. This helps to create, improve, and develop necessary conditions that will ensure equal opportunities for persons living with disabilities and the valuing of their capabilities in the process of economic and social development.
From the training, participants are capacitated to outline issues where access to services such as schools, health care, and justice are not accessible for youths with disabilities. Examples of such inaccessibility can include that buildings don’t have ramps for wheelchair users, information is not tactile for the use of people with vision impairment, there is not signage and interpreters to communicate with the deaf or officers don’t understand how to handle and communicate with people who have psychosocial and intellectual disabilities. The challenge of gaining this access is far greater for those with multiple disabilities.
I see and feel a lot still needs to be done for most young people with disabilities in the Pacific, particularly in terms of accessing health care services. Staff needs to know how to come into first contact with all kinds of people, communicate clearly and make sure their space is accessible for all persons living with disabilities so we can access sexual and reproductive health services. Through my work, there have been talks with health care services about accessibility, and also to collect desegregated data about young persons with disabilities concerning discrimination and sexual violence. This includes building evidence for the positive impact of sexual and reproductive health and rights here in the Pacific. I also advocate for a comprehensive assessment of legal, policy, and programming improvements and detailed good practices in service delivery, along with best-standard prevention and protection procedures.
I have supported and led training for sexual and reproductive health advocates, staff, and stakeholders about the importance of having disability policies, accessible buildings for people with all different types of disabilities and to know terminologies in addressing a person with disability. For example, a person is not ‘deaf and dumb’ – they’re just deaf. We don’t say someone has ‘snapped’ or that there is ‘something wrong with their brain’ – it’s mental illness or psychosocial disability. This language is important when coming to first contact with children, youths, women, and men with disabilities.
From the Nairobi Summit until now, I am working more with UNFPA in the Pacific, discussing how to make services more inclusive for persons with disabilities, helping with training, and linking activities with the disability sector. I believe this is one step forward, and I am passionate that this impact really reaches the communities, including in rural settings and outer islands because what I learned at the Nairobi Summit has opened my eyes and mind. It is creating a change and making everyone be part of understanding more the importance of sexual reproductive health rights in the Pacific – to realize the Sustainable Development Goals’ vision to leave no one behind.
Leslie Tikotikoca is the co-ordinator for the Access to Justice Program for persons living with disability for the Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation and an ICPD25 Youth Champion.