Children with disabilities – what is being done?

Children in a family are always a blessing, and bring feelings of joy and unity. New parents and families dream about their child’s future and upbringing and naturally would want to offer them the best possible life. In today’s times, children have a myriad of opportunities to learn, develop and succeed, however, is this true for children born with a disability? Are there the same opportunities or do they face a lifetime of challenges?

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with disability, Article 1, persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

Therefore, the focus isn’t on the condition but on the social and economic barriers that hinder one’s participation in different aspects of life.

UNICEF, an organisation that protects the rights of every child globally, states that, “The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) emphasizes that all children have the right to be full members of society, and be included in all forms of participation inside the home and out in the community.”

Unfortunately, many children with disabilities are not awarded this opportunity. Instead, they face many obstacles that exclude them from society and their peers. Children with disabilities are less likely to receive a full education, less favoured to be employed as adults, chances are increased to be victims of violence, less likely to start their own families and participate in community events, and more likely to live in poverty as compared to children who do not have a disability.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) mentions that 1 in 6 children has a developmental disability. Between the ages of 3 and 17 years, among the most common developmental disabilities are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Learning Disability and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Of all the disabilities, the most challenging could be intellectual. I turned to the body that protects the rights of persons with disability in Malta, CRPD, for some further information on the subject at hand. I was curious to know how many children have been registered as having a disability untill the end of last year.

Ms Samantha Pace Gasan, Commissioner for the Rights of Persons with Disability, has advised that CRPD holds the EU Disability Card Registry. This registry is voluntary and therefore does not include all persons with disability across Malta and Gozo. As at the 31st December 2021, there were 1,286 children registered with CRPD. Potentially there could be more.

As at the 31st December 2021, there were 1,286 children registered with CRPD.

Pace Gasan explained that “CRPD is currently participating in a project whereby Disability Equality Training is provided to medical professionals. Another project was launched by Aġenzija Sapport to train medical professionals in the field called ‘Breaking the News’.” 

Agenzija Sapport is the official government agency that provides services to persons with disability, from birth onwards. Among the services offered for children one can find assessment and intervention services, service allocation of funding, community services, residential services, NGO services, sign language interpretation among others.

The Child Development Assessment Unit (CDAU) within the allied health care services offered by the government, have occupational therapists that assess and treat clients from birth to 16 years referred by consultants/doctors.

Children seen at CDAU are referred for various limitations and difficulties including Autism, Global Developmental Difficulties, Learning Difficulties, ADHD, Cerebral Palsy, Head Injuries, Down syndrome and other syndromes.

Other assistance offered include social security allowance for children with disability, which currently stands at €30 per week.

So how ‘accessible’ and acceptive is society towards these children? Ms Pace Gasan replies, “This is highly subjective given that society is not made up of one homogenous block. Thus, one might be discriminating against a disabled child even though one professes total acceptance for the disabled in general.”

With regards to children with disabilities and the educational sector, CRPD is mostly involved in investigating whether they have been discriminated against.

In 2021, CRPD received 89 requests from the public regarding the educational sector, of which 15 were enquiries, 29 were referred to other entities, no discrimination was found in 20 instances and two complaints were dropped.

Thus, CRPD closed its investigations in 20 cases and is currently investigating another 3 cases.

Following this, one might ask if there is a specific law that protects children with disabilities. Article 7 of the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disability focuses on children with disability, which has been transposed in the Laws of Malta.

The Commission for the Right of Persons with Disability (CRPD) has been appointed the Independent Mechanism of the UNCRPD to protect, promote and monitor the implementation of the Convention. This article affirms the fundamental rights of all children with disabilities to the entire range of human rights existent to all children. Requirement for the best interest of the child and for the participation of the children themselves in decision-making are particularly important for children with disabilities, whose interests and voice are undervalued.

The exclusion of children with disabilities affects not only them, but imposes costs on the whole community. If these children lack the opportunity to be productive, society loses out on what they could have produced. The barriers faced by people with disabilities can also create more responsibilities for their family members, which can limit their opportunities to gain an education and subsequently, find work to sustain themselves.

Moreover, the impact of exclusion extends beyond the economic cost. If persons with disabilities are not involved in the community, the community cannot benefit from their ideas which could be a win-win situation.

Children with disabilities have the same rights and the same needs as other children. They are not only entitled to the protection and assistance, but to full participation in society. They have the right to express their opinions, take part in decision-making that affects them, receive inclusive education and be protected from violence and abuse like everyone else. As we have seen, ample financial and society aid is available for children and their guardians to help in the formation of these children.

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