Children with disabilities

UNICEF upholds the rights of children with disabilities. We tackle the barriers that keep them isolated to ensure they stay with their families, get a good education and participate in community life.

A girl with a large smile sits in her wheelchair at a desk with books laid out in front of her.

The challenge

Across Europe and Central Asia, children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to stigma and discrimination, and are often segregated. They may not appear in national statistics, becoming ‘invisible’ to decision makers, service providers and the public.  

While data on the estimated 5.1 million children with disabilities across the region remain scarce, we know they face multiple rights violations, from a lack of early detection or diagnosis of their disabilities, to exclusion from education and participation in their communities. 

The violations of their rights are often severe.

The exclusion of children with disabilities is exacerbated when they belong to another disadvantaged group. One example would be a Roma girl with a visible disability who has been trafficked to beg on the streets. Or a Syrian refugee child with disabilities in Turkey, whose family faces poverty.

The violations of their rights are often severe: worldwide, up to 68 per cent of girls and 30 per cent of boys with intellectual or developmental disabilities will be sexually abused before their 18 birthday. 

A tendency to want to ‘fix’ children with disabilities – rather than changing attitudes towards them – prevails. The focus is on medical responses to correct ‘defects’ rather than wider support to help children reach their potential. 

The region lacks services to identify and diagnose child disability at an early age and provide tailored support for families. As a result, children with disabilities are often placed in institutional care, an approach justified as being in their ‘best interests’. Worldwide, children with disabilities are up to 17 times more likely to live in institutions than other children. 

Stigma may stop families from asking for help or information.

Millions of children with disabilities are thought to be out of school across Europe and Central Asia. Many are still excluded from mainstream education and consigned to so-called ‘special schools’. Some teachers still refuse to educate children with disabilities, and some parents fear that their children’s education will suffer if they share the classroom with a child who has a disability.  

Children pose for a photo at an inclusive school in Belgrade, Serbia.
In Serbia, we have supported a major expansion of the inclusive schools network.

Many children and adolescents with disabilities are isolated from social activities and participation in their communities – a problem exacerbated by transport and buildings that remain inaccessible.  

Stigma may stop families asking for help or information, leaving them unaware of their rights or of any support that is available. Families may struggle to balance earning a living with caring for a child with disabilities -- increasing the risk of institutionalization for the child.

The solution

UNICEF upholds the rights of children with disabilities across Europe and Central Asia, from promoting their best possible care to supporting their education and participation. 

We support outreach services to families with young children to identify and respond to any disabilities at an early age, giving children a chance to reach their potential and keeping families together. Home-visiting programmes – an approach that spans child protection, health and nutrition and early childhood development – give families support and connect them to specialized services. 

Obstacles to learning and participation are not the ‘fault’ of a child’s impairment.

We aim to make schools inclusive and child-focused, recognizing that the obstacles to learning and participation are not the ‘fault’ of a child’s impairment, but rather the capacity of schools to remove those obstacles.

Our work with our partners has helped to increase the number of children with disabilities attending regular schools across the region. In Moldova, for example, the number of children with special educational needs in regular schools quadrupled between 2012 and 2015.

In Armenia, we support inclusive education through cross-sectoral collaboration for children with disabilities.

In Romania, the number of children with special educational needs in regular schools increased from 2 per cent in 2000 to 63 per cent in 2014.  

And in Serbia, we have supported a major expansion of the inclusive schools network. 

We tackle the discrimination that keeps children with disabilities isolated.

UNICEF tackles the discrimination that keeps children with disabilities isolated, supporting training to change mind-sets and develop skills among medical staff, teachers, psychologists, occupational therapists and social workers, and working to change public attitudes towards disability. 

A girl with a disability plays on a see-saw in a park in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as part of UNICEF's “It’s About Ability” campaign, we are improving access to social protection, inclusive services and education, public awareness and the creation a more inclusive environment including children's play areas.

We support campaigns to raise awareness of the rights of children with disabilities. In Montenegro, we supported the ‘It’s about ability’ campaign, which increased public acceptance of the inclusion of children with disabilities in regular education from 33.5 per cent in 2010 to 80 per cent in 2013. Similar campaigns have changed attitudes in Bosnia and Hercegovina  and Moldova. 
We work with the Government of Turkmenistan to boost investment for support systems for the families of children with disabilities. Early childhood development Specialists from education and health sectors and non-governmental organizations have had intensive training on early intervention.

In Turkey, UNICEF supports outreach teams that identify highly vulnerable families who are eligible for emergency cash support and link children with disabilities to specialized services. 

We work with disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) through the EU-UNICEF partnership on Violence against Children and Social Inclusion of Children with Disabilities, in cooperation with the European Disability Forum. This is forging new DPO alliances across the Western Balkans and Turkey.