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Children and adolescents (aged 0-18 years) with disability experience physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and neglect at considerably higher rates than those without disability, despite advances in awareness and policy in recent years, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies involving more than 16 million young people from 25 countries conducted between 1990 and 2020, published in  the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal. 

Young people with mental illness and cognitive or learning disabilities (eg, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism) are especially likely to experience violence, and overall, children with disabilities are more than twice as likely to experience violence compared to those without disabilities, which can have a serious and long-lasting impact on their health and wellbeing.

The authors note that whilst the study provides the most comprehensive picture of the violence experienced by children with disabilities around the world, there is a scarcity of data from low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs), especially in Southeast and Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the authors say that the findings highlight the urgent need for collaborative efforts by governments, health and social care workers, and researchers to raise awareness of all forms of violence against children with disabilities and to strengthen prevention efforts.

“Our findings reveal unacceptable and alarming rates of violence against children with disabilities that cannot be ignored”, says Professor Jane Barlow from the University of Oxford, UK who co-led the study. “All children have a right to be protected from violence which has long-lasting social, health and economic consequences, including higher school drop-out rates, worse job prospects, and a higher risk of mental illness and chronic diseases in later life. We must urgently invest in services and support that address the factors that place children with disabilities at heightened risk of violence and abuse, including caregiver stress, social isolation and poverty.” [2]

An estimated 291 million children and adolescents have epilepsy, intellectual disability, vision impairment, or hearing loss—representing about 11% of the total child and adolescent population globally. Many more have other physical and mental disabilities. The vast majority of children with disabilities—more than 94%—live in LMICs where multiple risks converge. Stigma, discrimination, lack of information about disability, and inadequate access to social support for carers contribute to the higher levels of violence experienced by children with disabilities. This can be further exacerbated by poverty and social isolation. The unique challenges faced by children with disabilities, such as the inability to verbalise or defend themselves, can also make them a target of violence.