"Invisibility is a lack of hope, a lack of opportunity, and the inability to access the basic elements that define a safe, productive life, including education, health care, housing, food, clean water, sanitation, and security." - Invisible Children
Demographics of Invisibility
More than 150 million children worldwide have some form of physical or mental impairment.[i] Social problems, adjustment issues, and lack of equitable opportunities are particularly acute for these children in low-income societies. Especially in cultures where children with disabilities are viewed as ‘cursed’, few opportunities for healthy development present themselves. In Egypt, physical or mental disabilities often lead to ostracism, and many families readily send away children with impairments. Roughly 5% of all children in Egypt have disabilities, leaving approximately 1.5 million children at risk in that country alone.[ii]
In Kazakhstan children deemed to be disabled are given a special identification card which prevents them from attending school and defines them as “uneducable.” Disabilities in Kazakhstan are broadly defined – children with dyslexia, who may be unruly, have attention deficit disorder, or are slow learners, have been included. Stigmatized and cut off from normal opportunities to learn or to work, these children often end up homeless, and most die young.[iii]
Some institutions that house these children have come to adopt practices based on the belief that children with developmental disabilities lack the ability to feel pain. Disability Rights International (DRI) has documented numerous cases of deliberate abuse. In some cases, medical procedures are conducted without anesthesia. In one facility, children’s teeth were extracted with pliers; elsewhere, children received electro-convulsive therapy with no anesthesia or muscle relaxants. Children can be left to languish. A DRI investigator found a child he presumed to be seven years old, but was told by a nurse that in fact the child was 21 and severely stunted because he had not been out of his crib in 11 years.[iv]
WHO estimates that there are 32 million deaf children in the world. Of these, nearly 80% are in the world’s weakest economies. [v] Blindness, too, can set children apart. The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 19 million children below the age of 15 are visually impaired, 90% of whom live in developing countries. Of these, roughly 12 million are impaired because of refractive errors, which are easily diagnosed and corrected. Approximately 1.4 million are permanently blind. And of those 1.4 million, WHO estimates that as many as half might have had their blindness prevented by simple medical treatments. Blindness and visual impairment in children comes from a variety of risks, including vitamin A deficiency (poor diets), exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun (poor shelter), tobacco use (poor choices), and lack of access to medical services (poor health care).[vi]
Clubfoot is a congenital birth defect that causes one or both feet to turn inward. An estimated 200,000 new cases appear worldwide each year. The World Health Organization has endorsed a treatment protocol for clubfeet that avoids surgery and is 95% effective, costing no more than $250, but more than 1 million children in low-income countries remain untreated, outside the reach of programs offering this remedy. They will go through life unable to walk normally, run or play.[vii]
Roughly 1 of every 2000 children worldwide is born with a cleft palate or cleft lip, creating a critical mass of hundreds of thousands of children dealing with the social, emotional and health-related issues attendant with these defects. Corrective surgeries are fantasies for most of those afflicted living in low-income countries. While some U.S. and European based programs have undertaken the repair of cleft lips and palates, such as Operation Smile, which has performed more than 200,000 free surgeries since 1982, hundreds of thousands of the poorest children must cope with a condition that further marginalizes them.[viii]
Services for children with physical or mental disabilities are woefully sparse in low-income countries, and in many countries where disabilities carry social stigma, children are sometimes prevented from accessing those services that do exist. In Jordan, a special-needs school charges no tuition and sends a bus to pick up the children, but many parents refuse to let their child attend because they fear their neighbors will see the bus and know their child has a disability.[ix]
In Haiti children with disabilities are frequently abandoned. Parents in poverty are often unable or unwilling to accept the extra burden of care required by children with special needs, and so many of them are turned to the streets, left to fend for themselves as beggars, or otherwise cast out. In this severely impoverished country, it is only the fortunate few that can find any services at all, and much of that is provided by the private sector.[x] In general, children living with disabilities worldwide are nearly four times as likely to be the victims of physical violence, and three times as likely to suffer sexual violence.[xi]
[iii] Lisa Fiala, “No Charity for the Disabled,” Global Fund for Children, On the Road Blog, November 19, 2008.
[iv] UNICEF. (2013, May). State of the World's Children Report. Pp. 46-47, http://www.unicef.org/sowc2013/files/SWCR2013_ENG_Lo_res_24_Apr_2013.pdf, p.47; cf. http://www.disabilityrightsintl.org/about/
[v] http://www.deafchildworldwide.info/about_us/index.html; cf. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs300/en/
[vi] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs282/en/ ; cf. “Vision 2020: Global Initiative for the Elimination of Avoidable Blindness Action Plan 2006-2011,” World Health Organization, p. 3. http://www.who.int/entity/blindness/Vision2020_report.pdf?ua=1
[viii] “WHO Centre Calls For Global Action On Cleft Palate,” Science Daily, May 18, 2005; http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/05/050518201405.htm
[ix] Julia Wallin, June 20, 2011, “Not Hearing Doesn’t Mean Your Soul Can’t Sing,” The Julia in Jordan Blog, http://juliainjordan.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/not-hearing-doesnt-mean-your-soul-doesnt-sing/, June 20, 2011.