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Almost a third of disabled children and teenagers face abuse, global study finds

primary school child working with toy letters in a classroom
Children with disability are twice as likely to encounter neglect and/or sexual, physical or mental abuse than children with no disabilities. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

About one-third of young children and teenagers with disabilities faced emotional and physical abuse, while 20% experience neglect and one in 10 sexual violence, according to international research.

Analysis involving more than 16 million young people from 25 countries conducted between 1990 and 2020, published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal, shows that 31.7% of children with disabilities have experienced violence. They are twice as likely to face neglect and/or sexual, physical or mental abuse than children with no disabilities. They are also far more likely to be bullied by their peers.

Researchers from Leeds, Oxford, Beijing and Columbia universities examined data measuring violence against children with disabilities published in Chinese and English studies between 1990 and 2020. They included 75 studies from high-income countries and 23 studies from seven low-income and middle-income countries.

The report also showed that violence is more common against children with mental disorders and cognitive or learning disabilities than for children with sensory impairments, physical or mobility limitations, and chronic diseases.

“Our findings reveal unacceptable and alarming rates of violence against children with disabilities that cannot be ignored,” said Jane Barlow, professor of evidence based intervention and policy evaluation at the University of Oxford, who co-led the study.

Higher rates of violence occurred in low-income countries. Stigma, discrimination, lack of information about disability, and inadequate access to social support for carers were contributory factors, as well as poverty and social isolation, the authors conclude.

Zuyi Fang from Beijing Normal University in China and co-lead author, said: “It is clear that low-and middle-income countries, in particular, face additional challenges, fuelled by complex social and economic drivers, and must establish legal frameworks to prevent violence, alongside increasing the capacity of health and social service systems to address the complex needs of children with disabilities and their families.”

As the data largely predates the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation today is likely to be much worse, said Tania King, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne. Lockdowns and job losses have increased familial stress, while increasing the isolation and risks to vulnerable children, including those with disabilities. “Rates of violence against children with disabilities are likely to have increased during the pandemic,” she said.

An estimated 291 million children and adolescents have epilepsy, intellectual disability, vision impairment, or hearing loss, representing about 11% of the global total child and adolescent population. Many millions more have other physical, cognitive and mental disabilities, or chronic diseases. Extrapolating the figures out among this population means about 90 million could have suffered violence.

The UN sustainable development goals aim to end all forms of violence against children by 2030. Yet more than 1 billion children are estimated to experience violence – directly or indirectly – each year.

Responding to the findings, Vladimir Cuk, executive director of the International Disability Alliance, an umbrella organisation representing 14 international and regional disability charities and NGOs, said: “It is not surprising that children with disabilities, especially those in residential institutions, experience all sorts of violence and mistreatment at a higher rate than others.

“We could not stress more the need for urgent action by states and relevant stakeholders to prevent these abuses and prosecute perpetrators of violence.”