“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. My friend’s reaction to the diagnosis reminded me of similar responses from other parents whose children have some type of physical or mental disability.
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.
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. It is the case of lead, pesticides and certain plastics.
Even children toys have been found to contain toxic elements. In a study carried out in six Eastern European and Asian countries researchers found toxic metals in 29 percent of the toys studied.
Children are more vulnerable than adults to the negative effects of environmental toxins. Because children have a higher metabolic rate and key organs are still developing rapidly during childhood and the kidney and liver are not fully developed, they cannot eliminate toxins as well as adult organs.
The United States produces approximately 100,000 synthetic chemicals. About 1,500 of them enter the market every year. In the United States, almost 17% of children (about one in six children) suffer from some form of disability.
Increasingly, the continuous exposure to environmental toxins is considered an important cause of disability. Developing countries also have these problems, because many toxic substances are less regulated than in industrialized countries. In addition, certain disabilities in children are the result of the mother’s exposure to toxic substances such as alcohol, nicotine and mercury during pregnancy.
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. Malnourished children may develop learning disabilities; in addition, they may be blind or have hearing loss.
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 their income to the family.
Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics, wrote in the State of the World’s Children 2005 UNICEF, “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. In some developing countries, up to ninety percent of children with disabilities do not attend school, limiting their chances for 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.
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 and education 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 at the same time 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.
Effects of Disabilities on Families
It is extremely important to improve the situation not only for disabled children, but also to address the needs of the family environment. 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.
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. In addition, it is important to develop actions to eliminate stigma, which is one of the most critical barriers to addressing the needs of these children.
Where possible, children with disabilities must participate in the planning of programs and projects that affect them. Nobody knows their needs better than they do.
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.