Disabled children: what’s behind the label?

photo posed by model

If you think about the word 'disabled' or 'disability', what comes to your mind? Is it a wheelchair, or sign language, or someone who needs assistance with everyday living? And if you then think about a disabled child and caring for him or her, what does it evoke for you?

Is it a picture of difficulties and obstacles? Do you imagine that you will not be able to cope if caring for a disabled child, that it will be too difficult, too much of a commitment? You might envisage frequent medical appointments, complicated care arrangements, or a child unable to play or communicate with you. All of these things can seem quite daunting and may perhaps frighten people off from considering caring for a disabled child. For many people, disability can carry an overwhelming label, which completely obscures the actual child, and the reality of who that little boy or girl is.

What is disability?

Would you say that a child who finds steps and stairs difficult, or uses British sign language, or wears glasses has a disability? An 18-month-old child who can only go up the stairs on his bottom may not be seen as disabled, but things will be different if the child is seven and cannot move any other way.

The problem with trying to fit people into a box called ‘disability’ is that it is not always clear where to draw the line – a child requiring a dairy-free diet isn’t disabled, but what if he or she is fed through a tube in their stomach (called gastrostomy)? External circumstances make a difference too: A child who uses a wheelchair will be able to move around much more easily in an environment where ramps are widely available.

Disabled children in the care system

Despite the difficulty in finding a unique definition, a number of statistics do exist on disabled children who are looked after (taken from Every child is special):

  • Disabled children are nine times more likely to become looked after than non-disabled children.
  • About a quarter of all looked after children are disabled.
  • Approximately 40 percent of children waiting for a new permanent family have an impairment or some form of special need.
  • Children with learning disabilities are the children for whom it is the most difficult to find permanent families.
  • Many disabled children awaiting permanent placements are under five, two-thirds are boys, and most are white.
  • Black disabled children are more likely than black non-disabled children to be placed with white families.

Disabled children are more likely than non-disabled children to be placed with single carers.

Support is offered for people caring for children with disabilities

Adopters are entitled to an assessment of their need for support following a child’s placement, and this includes people who adopt a disabled child. However, it is up to each local authority to decide how much support can be provided. All disabled children are regarded as ‘children in need’ and may get community-based equipment, services and allowances appropriate to their particular situation. Foster carers of course continue to get support and advice from their social worker. There are many specific charities, such as SCOPE and MENCAP, which are expert in advocating for the needs of their particular service users. And don’t forget online communities which give advice and information – such as Ouch! the BBC's disability website – which often include the chance to share experiences and ideas with other parents.


Useful books

In our bookshop are a list of relevant titles on disability