December 3 is the annual International Day of Persons with Disabilities and aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the rights, dignity and well-being of persons with disabilities – including children. It also celebrates the benefits for the whole society when persons with disabilities are included in every aspect of life.
Canada agreed to provide for the full human rights of children with disabilities to live life in dignity and reach their fullest potential when it signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. This Convention was the first international human rights treaty to include an explicit focus on disability. The Convention provides both universal protection of the rights of children with disabilities and special attention to the needs of children with disabilities in realizing those universal rights.
Since then, Canada has made progress in fulfilling the rights of children with disabilities including improving access to education, mental health services and financial supports for families. Yet there is evidence of continuing discrimination against children with disabilities that impacts their dignity, survival, development to fullest potential and inclusion in social life – often at great human and financial cost to their families, and to the rest of society.
When Canada signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, it signaled a stronger commitment to ensure that children with disabilities fully enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with other children.
Despite advances in legislation, policies and services, the rights of children with disabilities are still not being fully realized.
Children with Disabilities in Canada
- There are close to 200,000 children with disabilities under age 15.
- Children with disabilities are twice as likely as other children to live in households that rely on social assistance as a main source of income.
- Children with disabilities are over-represented in state care.
- Children with disabilities are two or more times more vulnerable to violence and abuse.
- Close to half of girls with disabilities will experience sexual abuse.
- Almost 55% of children with disabilities who need aids and devices do not have access to them.
- Due to their child’s disability, parents report having to:
- Work fewer hours (38.4%)
- Quit work (21.6%)
- Turn down a promotion (19.7%)
Protecting vulnerable children
Children with disabilities are disproportionately represented among victims of child maltreatment – estimates suggest that children with disabilities are two or more times more likely to be victims of child abuse. Additionally, there are questions about systemic discrimination against children with disabilities – in particular those with significant support needs – in accessing an equal standard of health care. “Quality of life” arguments are often found at the heart of complex ethical issues related to health care for people with disabilities – such assessments are subjective and vulnerable to negative assumptions and beliefs about life with disability.
What we can do:
- Develop a protocol in every health department, in collaboration with disability groups, to ensure non-discrimination in access to, and the provision of, health care and medical supports.
Inclusive Lifelong Learning
Lifelong patterns of inclusion are established in early childhood education programs, preschools, in the classroom and on the playgrounds of neighbourhood schools. Research reveals that children who are included in their early years have better outcomes for inclusion as adults. When children and youth with disabilities grow and learn alongside their peers, they are more likely to: continue in education, get a job, and be included and valued in their communities. Generally, regardless of the type or severity of disability, those in the high vs. low inclusion group are more likely:
- To be employed and to have a history of paid work
- To have incomes above the ‘poverty line’
- To have graduated from high school
Regardless of the type or severity of disability, those most likely to have incomes below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-Off (the unofficial “poverty line”) are in the low inclusion group.
What we can do:
- Advance quality inclusive lifelong education in all provinces and territories with improved laws and policies to guide service providers.
Supports to families
Children should be supported to live at home with their family and families are entitled to necessary supports to raise their children at home. Canada is doing a great deal to support families, but more is needed. In addition to improved disability-specific supports and services for families, barriers to access these supports need to be lifted. Generic access to services – health care, education, sports and recreation – have significant impact in supporting families who have a child with a disability to live typical lives.
What we can do:
- Develop a comprehensive family supportive policy agenda that has both federal and provincial/territorial components.
- Support the development of Provincial/Territorial policies and practices to prevent children with disabilities including Aboriginal children from entering the child welfare system for non-protection issues.
While there has been some progress in securing a rights-based framework to respect and promote the equal rights of children with disabilities we know that, beginning in the early years, patterns of exclusion are set in place. Governments and communities have a responsibility to tackle this trend. By addressing the rights of children with disabilities, Canada has the potential to re-shape the experience of disability and to dramatically change the poverty, educational and employment rates of adults with disabilities in Canada.
Please visit our new UNICEF Disabilities webpage
to learn more about the rights of children with disabilities and UNICEF’s international work for children with disabilities.