Children with physical and mental disabilities experience personal limitations in the social, psychological and economic spheres, some of which can be alleviated with parental, community and governmental support. The critical task is developing and maintaining a focus on abilities rather than on disabilities, then honing those abilities to provide the greatest degree of personal autonomy. Depending on the severity of conditions, the range of autonomy can vary from functional independence to assisted living to institutional care.
Most children are naturally social and keenly aware of ostracism. Disabled children stand out as different, and may become targets for ridicule, bullying and mockery. Sometimes, children live in situations where adults fail to encourage other children in the community to be supportive, nor do they prepare the disabled child for unpleasant encounters and cruelty from peers. They should learn that they do not deserve victimization -- they can reject it and should seek the help of an adult when such situations present themselves. Sports can provide an effective way to strengthen socialization. When paired with developmentally similar peers and supportive adult guidance, children learn about teamwork, cooperation and fair play.
Children are remarkably resilient, but the psychological effects of physical and mental disability can be lasting and subtle. Beyond the obvious effects of social turbulence, mental disability can lead to frequent confusion, frustration, anxiety and anger. Some children, disabled or not, have sunny temperaments and roll with the punches. More often, though, disabled children internalize negative messages received from peers and assume they are less significant and valued than others. In this area, it's especially important for family and friends to communicate positive, reinforcing messages that the child is valued, loved and wanted. While it is not possible to shield a child from all derogatory remarks, it is possible to refute them.
In stable families with adequate incomes, children may be shielded from the immediate economic effects of a physical or psychological condition. More commonly, though, expensive care requirements mean that money diverted to care is no longer available for a home in a better neighborhood, car repairs, vacations and so on. In extreme situations, the costs of care can bankrupt a family, leaving it in poverty. Financial problems can have direct effects on the child, such as nutritional deficiencies, sporadic or nonexistent availability of essential medications and uncertain access to medical care due to transportation hurdles. Available help in this area varies with locale. Some states provide generous supplemental health benefits, while others are cutting and even eliminating health programs.
Access to Services
Service quality and availability can vary greatly in different locales. Funding levels, local attitudes, care-provider training and competence are all factors. For example, some states have schools developed specifically for deaf education and others do not. Physical access to community services may not be comprehensive. Medical facilities for specialized care may not exist, in-home care and respite assistance may be limited, or administration of medicines may be unreliable. Without access to adequate support services, problems can quickly multiply for the child and his family. When access to services is inadequate, parents must become advocates for their children, build coalitions with others who share their interests and advocate for change.
Safety and Security
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, disabled children are three times more likely to be sexually abused than their non-disabled peers. Among children with intellectual and mental health disabilities, the risk is 4.6 times greater. Abusers seek out children who can be easily manipulated and coerced or have limited physical ability to resist. Most abusers are not strangers, but someone the victim knows. Children with limited communication abilities may not be able to describe abuse or reliably identify abusers. The key to preventing abuse is educating and training the disabled child. This means discussing appropriate and inappropriate contact and emphasizing the importance of reporting inappropriate contact to a trusted adult. More prevention steps are available from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's publication, "Preventing the Sexual Exploitation of Children," or at missingkids.com.
- Michigan DOE, Office of Special Education & Early Intervention Services: How Children With Disabilities Make Friends
- Journal of the Academy of Rehabilitative Audiology, Hancock and Cobb, 1980: Psychological Perspectives on Physically Disabled Children and Adolescents
- Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Impact: Serving Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System: Barriers and Strategies, Lightfoot and LaLiberte, 2006
- National Children's Advocacy Center: Child Abuse Victims with Disabilities
- Vera Institute of Justice: Sexual Abuse of Children with Disabilities: A National Snapshot
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: Preventing the Sexual Exploitation of Children
- Barbara Penoyar/Photodisc/Getty Images