Children and adolescents with disabilities are more than twice as likely to experience violence than their non-disabled peers, with global estimates suggesting one in three are survivors of violence.

The global study of more than 16 million young people reveals that young people with mental illness or learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to violence, which can have a serious and long-lasting impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

Children from lower income settings are also especially likely to experience violence, although the authors of the study note that there is a scarcity of data from low-income and middle-income countries, especially in Southeast and Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

This is particularly concerning as the vast majority – more than 94% – live in these countries, where stigma, discrimination, lack of information about disability and inadequate access to social support can exacerbate the risk of violence.

A collaborative effort to raise awareness and strengthen prevention efforts

Co-leader of the study Jane Barlow said the findings reveal “unacceptable and alarming” rates of violence among disabled children that “cannot be ignored”.

The researchers are therefore calling for a collaborative effort from governments and health and social workers to raise awareness of violence against children with disabilities and strengthen prevention efforts.

As Ms Barlow explains: “All children have a right to be protected from violence which has long-lasting social, health and economic consequences, including higher school drop-out rates, worse job prospects, and a higher risk of mental illness and chronic diseases in later life.

“We must urgently invest in services and support that address the factors that place children with disabilities at heightened risk of violence and abuse, including caregiver stress, social isolation and poverty.”

One in 10 children with disabilities have experienced sexual violence

The analysis includes 98 studies of more than 16 million children and adolescents from 25 countries, and encompasses a variety of types of violence including peer bullying, intimate partner violence and online harassment, as well as a wider range of disabilities including physical limitations, cognitive or learning disabilities, sensory impairments and chronic diseases.

The most commonly reported types of violence were emotional and physical, experienced by about one in three children and adolescents with disabilities. The estimates suggest that one in five children with disabilities experience neglect and one in ten have experienced sexual violence.

Co-lead author Dr Zuyi Fang said: “It is clear that low-and middle-income countries, in particular, face additional challenges, fuelled by complex social and economic drivers.”

For this reason, she says, it is vital that these countries “establish legal frameworks to prevent violence, alongside increasing the capacity of health and social service systems to address the complex needs of children with disabilities and their families.”

“More robust research is also needed in economically disadvantaged populations and to investigate violence perpetrated by intimate partners and authority figures,” she added.