Disability and Children at Risk

By Dr. Phyllis Kilbourn:  For a large majority of the world’s children, disabilities not associated with birth are acquired through crisis experiences that not only cause children not to function within the expected norms, but also make them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Children of war, street children and child laborers are prime examples of children who are vulnerable to disabilities resulting from dangerous occupations, accidents or harmful exploitation.

Children at risk are not only vulnerable to disability, but disability also increases risks to children. As confirmed through research, credible reports and statistics, children with disabilities are among the most stigmatized and marginalized of all the world’s children. Negative societal attitudes expose children with disabilities to greater risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. While all children are at risk of being targeted victims of violence, children having a disability find themselves at significantly increased risk because of the stigma, negative traditional beliefs and ignorance associated with disabilities.

One of the many contexts where children with disabilities are especially at risk is in situations of war. Knowledge gained from examining this exploitive situation in the context of disability can be transferred to other forms of exploitation experienced by children.

Disabilities Caused by War

At eight years old Nermina had been the joy of her family. She could make them laugh with just a smile, she could make them proud by the way she joined others doing the chores and the way she succeeded in her school work, and she always had friends with whom she played.

But now that was over. The landmine had taken her foot. Now she was a burden. She could not smile; she had to be helped everywhere; and her friends were too busy running and jumping to just sit with her. Even her smile was lost somewhere in the past.

It was Tuesday at the hospital. Nermina had been in this special hospital for two days. It seemed right that she was banished to this sterile place. Her friends probably no longer wanted to be with her; her family only cried when they looked at her; she knew that she could no longer walk the miles to school, pick berries for the market, or kick the ball when it rolled in her direction. She did not belong any more.

Nermina’s story so well describes the experiences of countless children caught up in violent civil wars. According to the WHO, “for every child killed in warfare, three are injured and acquire a permanent form of disability. In some countries, up to a quarter of all disabilities result from injuries and violence.”

Along with the disabilities children acquire through clearing fields of landmines is the difficult fact that, according to the United Nations, one of every four soldiers in the world is a child. Opportunities for disability-type injuries are rife for the child soldier, including mental and physical challenges from the drugs and alcohol given them for bravery in fighting during the day and forgetting what they have done when night falls.

Eleven years of civil war in Sierra Leone is another prime example of how war brings about an increase in disability. Thousands of young people were forced to suffer disabilities, “both as a result of forced amputations—the tragic hallmark of the rebel forces—and the collapse of the national health system including childhood immunizations. As vaccinations ceased, disabling diseases such as polio crept back into overcrowded slums, mainly affecting children under the age of five.”

Regardless of how children acquire a disability, they require special care and attention, or else they become at risk of being excluded from within their society, community and even family. Unfortunately for the vast majority of children, especially in developing countries, access to rehabilitative health care or support services is not available. Lack of care has resulted in hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities being destined to live their lives in institutions, often deprived not only of love and affection but also of the most basic physical requirements.

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