GENEVA — The U.N. Children's Fund says children with disabilities are among the most marginalized people in the world. In its annual State of the World's Children report, UNICEF says ending discrimination against children with disabilities and nurturing their abilities will benefit both the children and society as a whole.
The report presents a grim assessment of the discrimination and stigma suffered by tens of millions of children with disabilities in all regions of the world. There is very little data on these children, so the magnitude of the problem is unknown.
However, according to one widely-used estimate, some 93 million children, or one in 20 aged 14 years or younger, live with a moderate or severe disability of some kind. While children with disabilities are worse off in poor countries, UNICEF says they suffer discrimination, stigmatization and marginalization in poor and rich countries alike.
UNICEF Inclusive Education Consultant Paula Hunt tells VOA disabled people tend to be invisible in society. She says many disabled children are not registered at birth, which cuts them off from social services and legal protections crucial to their survival and prospects.
"You have countries in which having a disabled child is considered bad luck, not only for the child, but for the entire family. Children with disabilities are more likely to not attend school because it is seen as they are unable to learn. Children with disabilities often do not have friends ... And, so, children with disabilities often miss out on every aspect of social life," Hunt said.
The UNICEF report says children with disabilities are the most vulnerable to violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect, particularly if they are hidden or put in institutions. The report notes 17 studies from high-income countries found children with disabilities are three to four times more likely to be victims of violence.
The report argues society stands to gain from including rather than excluding children -- from concentrating on their abilities, rather than on their disabilities. For example, it says making education more inclusive broadens the horizons of all children and provides opportunities denied children with disabilities.
Hunt considers disabled children no less able than other children. "For me, the biggest gain of having a society that is inclusive of children with disabilities is that you get used to children with disabilities. And so, that entire misunderstanding, the fear of things that you do not know becomes smaller and smaller," Hunt said.
The report urges governments to ratify and implement the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It calls on governments to support families so they can meet the higher costs of caring for children with disabilities. It calls for measures to fight discrimination.
The State of the World's Children report uses the under-5 mortality rate as the principle indicator of progress in child well-being. The report shows that in 1970, around 16.9 million children under 5 were dying every year, while in 2011, 6.9 million were dying, nearly half of them in sub-Saharan Africa.