'Disabled children are at higher risk of violence and abuse'

A child holds an anti-smacking placard on the march to Downing Street in 2000

The Welsh government has made any smacking or slapping of children a criminal offence - Credit: PA

In the same week that the Welsh government made any smacking or slapping of children a criminal offence a major survey revealed that children with disability are twice as likely to experience violence as their non-disabled peers. 

A systematic review of studies including 16 million children in 25 countries carried out by a team at Oxford University and published in the Lancet medical journal showed that disabled children were at higher risk of a range of different forms of violence and abuse, including peer bullying and online harassment.

One in three children with disability experienced emotional or physical ill treatment, one in five suffered neglect and one-in-10 were victims of sexual abuse. Such abuse may have long-term consequences for physical and mental health. The authors note that, though their review had an international focus, they lacked data from many low and middle income countries where most children with disability live and where conditions are likely to be worse than in wealthier regions. 

It is worth recalling that, though corporal punishment has long been abandoned in mainstream schools in most Western countries, it continued until recently in schools for children with autism and learning disabilities.

Mary Langan wants more IT support and training in care settings.

Mary Langan says that children with disabilities are at a higher risk of violence and abuse - Credit: Archant

Popular techniques for behaviour modification used "aversive stimuli", such as heat, cold, loud noises and other forms of punishment as well as positive encouragement. Indeed the notorious Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts in the USA is still defending its use of electric shocks to deter particular forms of behaviour. Though such methods have now been abandoned in the UK, it is salutary to remember that children with disabilities endured this sort of ill-treatment in the recent past. 

Lead author professor Jane Barlow says that the findings of their survey are "unacceptable and alarming" and observes that "stigma, discrimination, lack of information and inadequate access to social support" are all contributory factors. An accompanying editorial in the Lancet describes "violence against children with disability" as "an unacceptable scourge of society". Let’s hope that the legislative protection now extended to children in Wales (following earlier measures in Scotland) will also apply to all children with disabilities. 

Mary Langan is chair of the Severe and Complex Needs Families Group.