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Meeting the Global Challenge of Children With Disabilities

Addressing the needs of children with disabilities is a sign of a compassionate and intelligent society.

December 22, 2012

Credit: file404/

When we got the diagnosis we felt like they had put a gun to our face,” a friend told me recently. His daughter had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism characterized by behavioral problems, including difficulties with social interactions.

Children living with disabilities represent a serious challenge for parents, communities, and governments worldwide:

   Parents must decide the best way to meet the needs of their children.

  Communities need to help improve attitudes towards those with the disabilities and emphasize the strengths that those living with disabilities share.

  Governments must increase funding and services for the increasing number of children living with various disabilities today.

Between 500 and 600 million people worldwide are living with a disability. According to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 10% of children and youth in the world (about 200 million) have a disability.

Eighty percent live in developing countries, although the numbers vary widely across countries. Latin America and the Caribbean have approximately 50 million people with disabilities, 90% unemployed and 82% living in poverty.

These figures do not reflect the tragic emotional and financial impact that disabilities have on the family as a whole. Stigma is one of the most critical barriers to addressing the increasing prevalence of disabilities.

Causes of disability

There are many causes of disabilities in children. These include genetic factors, conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth, and conditions affecting newborns. In addition, there are those related to the different types of violence experienced by children, particularly in times of war.

In young children, the deficiency of certain minerals such as iodine affects their mental development and the same deficiency in the mother during pregnancy can result in varying degrees of intellectual disabilities in infants.

According to WHO, early detection and appropriate primary prevention measures can prevent about 70% of cases of childhood disability.

A wide range of toxins in the environment has a negative effect on the physical and mental development of children. In some cases, certain disabilities in children are the result of the mother’s exposure to toxic substances such as alcohol, nicotine and mercury during pregnancy.

Children with disabilities are also more vulnerable to the negative effects of environmental toxins such as lead, pesticides and certain plastics than the rest of the population.

This is because children in general are more affected than adults by the negative effects of environmental toxins. Given that children have a higher metabolic rate and that key organs are still developing rapidly during childhood (and the kidney and liver are not yet fully developed), they cannot eliminate toxins as well as adult organs.

It is increasingly thought that the continuous exposure to environmental toxins is an important cause of disability. The United States — where almost 17% of children (about one in six children) suffer from some form of disability — produces approximately 100,000 synthetic chemicals. About 1,500 of them enter the market every year.

Developing countries also have these problems, because many toxic substances are less regulated than in industrialized countries.

Consequences of malnutrition and poverty

Malnutrition is a common cause of disability and is a direct result of poverty. This is one important reason to address poverty affecting large numbers of children.

Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of disability. The costs of caring for disabled children are very high, particularly for mothers who are unable to work and contribute to their family’s income.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel prizewinning economist, wrote in UNICEF’s 2005 State of the World’s Children report, “What causes consternation in the case of child poverty is how little it would cost to do something about it.”

Disabilities in children often affect their educational possibilities. Ninety percent of children with disabilities do not attend school. This limits their chances of better education and future employment.

All these situations pose a number of challenges about how to better cope with disabilities in children. Disability experts have concluded that early intervention can demonstrably improve those affected with disabilities.

Many initiatives to address the basic needs of children with disabilities do not require a complicated infrastructure or big expenses. They can be carried out by taking advantage of community resources and existing infrastructure.

Community-based rehabilitation

A specific form of local support is programs designed and implemented by local communities. This concept was developed by the World Health Organization in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It stresses the rehabilitation, equalization of opportunities, poverty reduction and social inclusion for all children and adults. All members of the community benefit and social and community leaders learn to work together.

Thankfully, the de-institutionalization of children with disabilities has become the norm. In order for it to be truly effective, it must be accompanied by the development of suitable community structures for the care of children with disabilities.

Inclusive education for children with disabilities

Educational institutions should include children with disabilities in regular education programs and should eliminate their segregation. Inclusive education means responding to the needs of children with physical and mental disabilities.

The “New School” in Colombia or the Child Friendly Schools in Brazil are examples of inclusive educational approaches that expand the opportunities for a wide range of children.

Costa Rica has established a National Resource Center for Inclusive Education that supports schools with an inclusive approach towards children with disabilities while also improving the quality of education for all students.

Government support is crucial for these types of programmatic efforts to be successful.

The Organization of American States, along with Microsoft and the Trust for the Americas Foundation, launched a program called POET to facilitate access to technology for people with disabilities in Colombia.

In this sense, modern technology is increasingly being used to help the disabled to work with their disabilities and have access to quality education that will allow them to find and maintain employment.

Effects of disabilities on families

Disabilities in children often pose significant challenges to their families. Siblings, for example, may resent the extra attention given to children with disabilities. For parents, it poses enormous physical and emotional demands for people already living in very stressful situations.

It is extremely important to improve the situation not only for disabled children, but also to address the needs of the family environment.

These considerations underscore the need for a holistic approach to children with disabilities. This involves developing national policies that promote opportunities for disabled children and properly allocating resources to meet their needs.

Where possible, children with disabilities must participate in the implementation of programs and projects that affect them. Nobody knows their needs better than they.

Addressing the needs of children with disabilities is not only a duty that we as a society must embrace. It is also an expression of the compassion and intelligence with which we are able to help create a better society.


Early detection and appropriate primary prevention measures can prevent about 70% of cases of childhood disability.

Educational institutions should eliminate the segregation of children with disabilities and include them in regular education programs.

It is extremely important to address the needs of the family environment.

Children with disabilities must participate in the implementation of programs and projects that affect them.