According to a systematic review and a meta-analysis published Online First in The Lancet, children with disabilities tend to be 3 to 4-times more likely to become victims of violence as compared to those without disabilities. It is estimated that one in four children with disabilities experience violence during their lifetime.

Worldwide, 93 million children (5%) suffer from moderate or severe disability. Even though it is believed that kids with disabilities are exposed to a greater risk of violence, this study is the first that quantifies the prevalence and magnitude of that risk.

Mark Bellis from Liverpool’s John Moores University in the UK and his team conducted a systematic search for studies with data on the prevalence of violence against disabled children that were conducted in the last two decades. They found 17 eligible studies involving more than 18,000 children between the ages of 2 to 18 years from studies conducted in the USA, UK, Sweden, Finland, Spain, and Israel.

Their meta-analysis demonstrated that over a quarter (26.7%) of children with disabilities have been exposed to some form of violence during their lifetime, including physical, sexual, emotional abuse, or neglect and that these kids experienced a high lifetime level of physical (20·4%) and sexual violence (13·7%).

Even though the individual studies were different to one another, overall the studies estimated that children with disabilities have an almost 4-times higher risk of experiencing violence compared with those who have no disabilities, and that their risk of being exposed to physical and sexual violence is at least 3-times higher.

In addition, the risk of sexual violence in children with mental or intellectual disability seems to be higher (odds ratio 4.62) than the risk of children with other forms of disability and those without a disability. The team was unable to estimate the risk for other types of disability due to insufficient data.

Bellis concluded:

“The impact of a child’s disability on their quality of life is very much dependent on the way other individuals treat them. This research establishes that the risk of violence to children with disabilities is routinely three to four times higher than that of non-disabled children. It is the duty of government and civil society to ensure that such victimization is exposed and prevented.

Estimates are missing for most regions of the world, particularly low-income and middle-income countries. This is a fundamental gap that needs to be addressed because these countries generally have higher population rates of disability, higher levels of violence, and fewer support services than do high-income countries.”

Dr Etienne Krug, Director of WHO’s Department of Violence and Injury Prevention and Disability, commented on the study, writing:

“The results of this review prove that children with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to violence, and their needs have been neglected for far too long. We know that specific strategies exist to prevent violence and mitigate its consequences. We now need to determine if these also work for children with disabilities. An agenda needs to be set for action.”

Emily Lund and Jessica Vaughn-Jensen from Texas A&M University in the USA also write in a linked comment: “Researchers need to target under-represented disability groups…[to] provide a clear picture of the interactions between the type of disability and risk for violence and maltreatment. Future research should seek to strengthen our knowledge through rigorous studies with diverse populations, both in terms of nationality and type of disability.”

Written by Grace Rattue