Children with disabilities (2023)


Every child has the right to live in an inclusive world.

Children with disabilities (1)

Fifteen per cent of the world’s population – at least one billion people – have some form of disability, whether present at birth or acquired later in life. Nearly 240 million of them are children.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines living with a disability as having a long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment that – in interaction with the environment – hinders one’s participation in society on an equal basis with others.

Children and adolescents with disabilities are a highly diverse group with wide-ranging life experiences. They live in every community, and are born with or acquire distinct impairments that, in relation to their surroundings, lead to functional difficulties – like seeing, walking, communicating, caring for oneself or making friends.

But the extent to which children with disabilities are able to function, participate in society and lead fulfilling lives depends on the extent to which they are accommodated and included. No matter their story, every child has every right to thrive.

Discrimination against children with disabilities

Yet, children with disabilities are among the most marginalized people in every society.

A range of barriers limits their ability to function in daily life, access social services (like education and health care) and engage in their communities. These include:

  • Physical barriers – for example, buildings, transportation, toilets and playgrounds that cannot be accessed by wheelchair users
  • Communication and information barriers – such as textbooks unavailable in Braille, or public health announcements delivered without sign language interpretation
  • Attitudinal barriers – like stereotyping, low expectations, pity, condescension, harassment and bullying

Each of these is rooted in stigma and discrimination that reflect negative perceptions of disability associated with ableism: a system of beliefs, norms and practices that devalues people with disabilities.

Some children with disabilities face other forms of discrimination that compound their deprivation. Worldwide, this is especially the case for girls; children who are poor, Black, Indigenous, or LGBTQI+; and those who belong to ethnic minorities, migrant communities or other marginalized groups. Children with severe or multiple disabilities also tend to have a particularly hard time getting their needs met.

For every child, every right

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was adopted in 2006 in response to the severe human rights violations experienced by people with disabilities worldwide. The CRPD obligates Governments to take concrete measures to promote their full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Despite international commitments, children with disabilities remain largely invisible in research and programmes meant to build more equitable, inclusive societies. This invisibility is both a cause and a consequence of their exclusion.

Children with disabilities often work hard to accommodate themselves to an inaccessible world that excludes them. But they are not problems that need to be fixed or changed. Disability is part of the diversity of human experience: Functional limitations manifest in the life cycle of every one of us. The extent to which children with disabilities are able to lead happy lives depends on our own willingness to confront barriers to change.

How UNICEF responds

Topics in disability rights

Stigma and discrimination

Stigma and discrimination are at the root of the exclusion children with disabilities face in every aspect of life. UNICEF works to transform attitudes, practices and social norms around disability to make families, communities, schools, health care, and social services inclusive and accessible, and to support the full participation of children with disabilities in society.

Inclusive health and well-being

Children with disabilities often have limited access to health care, nutrition and support for their well-being. As a result, they experience poorer physical and mental health outcomes compared to their peers. UNICEF works to ensure that children with disabilities and their families can access disability-inclusive health services, support and information in their communities, from early childhood through adolescence.

Inclusive education

Children with disabilities face persistent barriers to education stemming from discrimination, stigma and the routine failure of decision-makers to address exclusion inschool. As a result, they are among the most likely to be out of school, and are often placed in segregated schooling. Many miss out on opportunities to learn and develop skills for employment, independent living and full participation in their communities. UNICEF supports inclusive education as the most effective way for all children to go to school, learn and develop the skills they need to thrive.

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Inclusive child protection

Children with disabilities face heightened risks ofviolence, abuse, neglect and exploitation compared to their peers. They’re also more likely to be institutionalized and experience barriers accessing justice.UNICEF works to make child protection systems inclusive and accessible, including inhumanitarian crises, so that children with disabilities are protected from harm and discrimination.

Inclusive WASH

Many children with disabilities have limited access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities – creating barriers to other needs for which WASH is a necessary condition. UNICEF works to ensure that all children with disabilities realize their fundamental human right to accessible drinking water and sanitation, as required for their safety, dignity and participation in society.

Inclusive social protection

Children with disabilities and their families are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, owing to the costs of having a disability, lack of access to education and other essential services, and inadequate social protection. UNICEF works to make social protection systems and social spending responsive to disability, so that children and their families receive services and support to break the link between disability and poverty.

Children with disabilities in emergencies

Children with disabilities are among the most marginalized in communities affected by humanitarian emergencies, compounding the barriers they face even in the best of times. UNICEF works to ensure that people with disabilities are represented in humanitarian decision-making, and that all crisis-affected children with disabilities have safe access to humanitarian assistance, along with opportunities to participate in emergency response, recovery and rebuilding efforts.

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Engaging children and adolescents

Children and adolescents with disabilities are the experts on their experiences and needs, and have the right to be heard in all matters that concern them. They are UNICEF’s foremost partners in our work to make societies inclusive and accessible.

To ensure our programming supports their well-being, we consult children and adolescents with disabilities to address the issues most important to them. UNICEF also works to amplify their voices and secure opportunities for their participation in society, including through peer support networks, youth organizations, innovation labs and civic engagement at the local, national and global levels.

Assistive technology and inclusive products

Assistive technology includes products and services that maintain or improve an individual’s functioning, independence, participation and well-being. It encompasses specialized devices like wheelchairs, prostheses, hearing aids and eyeglasses. It also includes services like speech and occupational therapy, as well as assessments that match individuals to the technology that’s right for them. Assistive technology is instrumental for the development and participation of children with disabilities, enabling their communication, mobility and self-care, and allowing them to explore their worlds.

Inclusive products are objects – such as toys, tools and even playgrounds – that are created according to universal design principles. These are not made specifically for children with disabilities, but are designed in a way that includes them. An inclusive product can be something as simple as a clock with both Braille and ink numbering.

UNICEF builds capacity for the procurement and provision of disability-inclusive supplies, including assistive technologies and inclusive products. We foster innovation, promote quality standards, develop guidance, and influence markets to increase access to these supplies.

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Data and evidence

A lack of data and research about children with disabilities has been both a cause and a consequence of their invisibility. Measures also vary widely across countries: Narrow medical definitions and assessments that use stigmatizing language yield lower estimates of disability prevalence, compared to broader measures that focus on functioning.

But recent years have seen renewed efforts to fill data gaps, with the development of new data collection tools that have increased the availability and quality of data on children with disabilities. If used to inform policies and programmes that foster inclusion and accessibility, these data have the potential to change lives.

UNICEF works in partnership with governments, national statistical offices, academic institutions and organizations of persons with disabilities (OPDs) to develop disability measurement, support the collection and dissemination of disaggregated data, advance knowledge management, and invest in global research to inform solutions for their full inclusion and participation in society.

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No child should be left behind. Yet UNICEF research indicates that among 240 million children with disabilities globally, half have never attended school, and nearly a third do not eat enough of the right food. We remain committed to generating new evidence and, with our Global Research Agenda and Platform for Children with Disabilities, will mainstream disability in all research to increase investment in inclusion.

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What we do

UNICEF works to build a world where children with disabilities reach their full potential.

Our work is guided by the social model and human rights–based approach to disability, recognizing disability as caused by unaccommodating social environments, institutions and attitudes. We promote accessibility as a precondition for children and adults with disabilities to live independently and participate fully and equally in society.

UNICEF works to ensure that children with disabilities and their families have access to all the services and support they need in their communities. We advocate for disability-inclusive policies and legislation, along with adequate investments to put them into practice.

Our approach aims for children with disabilities to be included in mainstream programmes across sectors. That means all community services provide disability-specific support, such as personal care assistance, rehabilitation and assistive technologies, like eyeglasses, prostheses and wheelchairs.

We also work to build evidence and knowledge on disability, strengthen the capacities of frontline workers, support parents and caregivers of children with disabilities, and engage communities to address stigma and discrimination.

We promote the accessibility of content, communication channels and platforms, and build strong partnerships with organizations of people with disabilities. Children and adolescents with disabilities are the experts on their own experiences: We amplify their voices and enhance their ability to claim their rights.

In line with the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy, UNICEF is making disability an integral component of our own policies, programmes and operations. Our goal is to be an inclusive, accessible organization and an employer of choice for people with disabilities, and to advance inclusion in development and humanitarian work across the United Nations system.

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