Special Needs Children in Developing Countries


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Approximately one billion people around the world are currently living with a disability. 80 percent of these individuals live in a developing country, and one in 10 is a child.

Poverty, malnutrition, poor health, illiteracy and lack of access to proper sanitary conditions or clean water exacerbate the consequences of children’s disabilities in developing nations.

Developing countries struggle to address the needs of their healthy citizens, let alone those who are disabled. Without effective policies, disabled children often lack the resources they need and rarely receive a quality education.

The term “disabled” covers a wide range of the spectrum, including cognitive, physical, sensory, learning, speech or emotional challenges.

One big problem of the current education systems in developing countries comes in the fact that the curriculum is not modified to meet disabled children’s needs, causing many to get behind or even drop out.

Apart from the constraints of the specific curriculum, what is perhaps the most frustrating of all is that a child can be excluded from learning due to a problem as simple as poor eyesight—hindering their ability to see the board.

In 2010, the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport conducted a study in order to collect data on children that were not attending school due to their disability. These children ranged in age between 2 years old and 17 years old.

The study indicated that a significant number of “disabled” children not receiving an education in Cambodia were suffering from easily treatable ailments such as hearing loss caused by an infection. Many others merely needed glasses to improve their vision.

If disabled kids do have access to education, often teachers lack the appropriate training necessary to accommodate the disability. Children with disabilities are proven to be more likely to drop out of school than any other vulnerable group.

Not only is there a lack of resources, many cultures in developing countries marginalize disabled children from society, making them extremely vulnerable and more likely to experience discrimination. Children with special needs are more susceptible to abuse, neglect and exploitation than children without disabilities.

The good news is that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is moving disabilities up on the international agenda. In fact, one of UNICEF’s main goals is to enhance the development and inclusion of children with disabilities, allowing for their increased access to health and education services.

UNICEF has recommended improved screening tools to help schools identify disabilities early and understand how to help children, rather than exclude them. A 10-question screen has been developed in order to identify children early on who are at increased risk for disability.

Many countries lack the resources to provide comprehensive, diagnostic evaluations of children screening positive for a disability. This hinders a school’s ability to determine that child’s specific medical, rehabilitation and educational needs.

In a study conducted by UNICEF, between 14 percent and 35 percent of children screened positive to the Disability Module in most of the developing countries participating. The findings of the survey indicated that there is a positive correlation between countries with a high percent of child disabilities that also have a high “under-five” mortality rate.

In addition, the study found that family resources and socioeconomic status were associated with child disability screening results. Children from the poorest 60 percent of households were frequently more likely to be at risk for disability than those from the wealthiest 40 percent of homes.

Health is another crucial indicator of the gravity of a child’s disability. The percentage of children screening positive to the Disability Module was larger with increasing severity of growth stunting and malnutrition.

The possibilities for why a child is disabled are numerous. Whether they were born with a genetic condition, sustained a serious injury, possess a nutritional deficiency or life-altering infection, the failure to recognize or address child disabilities is a crushing blow to basic human rights.

Child disability has been largely unanswered because there are significant gaps in knowledge on the subject of special needs children in developing countries. UNICEF is particularly interested in the number of children affected, in addition to the kinds of discrimination children are likely to endure.

The international community is calling for education systems to change, finding innovative ways to include and accommodate children with special needs, despite a lack of funding. This plan must include policy improvements and provide countries with outside help in order to design a system for quality data collection used in tracking, allowing for the appropriate intervention to take place.

According to the study, it is essential that societies adapt their structures to ensure that all children, irrespective of age, gender and disability, can enjoy their basic human rights without being pushed to the outskirts of society and denied an education.

Caroline Logan

Sources: UNICEF, Global Partnership for Education
Photo: AngloList


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