Disabled children have an equal right to protection from abuse

Better protection is achievable if we redress the balance,
says NSPCC's Jon Brown

All children have the right to be safe. In the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) it is stated that every child has the right to be protected “from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse”.

And yet, we know that disabled children are three times more likely to be abused. Disabled children face many injustices in their lives. What is even more concerning about their increased vulnerability to be abused is the fact that they are still less likely to get the protection and support they need when they have been abused.

Disabled children are over 3 times more likely to be abused than non-disabled children

Explanation: Jones, L. et al searched 12 databases for studies that estimated the scale of violence against children with disabilities or that compared their risk of being victims of violence with children without disabilities.

16 studies were identified that provided suitable data about levels of violence against disabled children and 11 studies were identified that looked at risk.

By pooling together the data from these studies, the researchers were able to estimate that:

  • 26·7% of disabled children experienced some type of violence
  • 20·4% of disabled children experienced physical violence
  • 13·7% of disabled children experienced sexual violence.

Compared to their non-disabled peers, disabled children were estimated to be:

  • 3·68 times more likely to experience some kind of violence
  • 3·56 times more likely to experience physical violence
  • 2·88 times more likely to experience sexual violence.

Due to their increased vulnerability, we might expect there to be an overrepresentation of disabled children who are subjects of child protection plans. But the truth is that they are underrepresented here, by over a third.

Our We have the right to be safe report pulls together research from both within the UK and further afield.

It identifies a number of factors which increase the risk for disabled children, including:

  • a general reluctance of people to believe that disabled children are abused
  • limited opportunities to seek help from someone else
  • a skills gap between disability and child protection workers
  • inadequate teaching about personal safety skills (tailoring methods such as the Underwear Rule to disabled children could help keep themselves safe)
  • issues relating to the child’s specific disability, for example difficulties in communicating or an inability to understand what is happening

Little is known about deaf and disabled children’s experiences in the child protection system

Very little is known about the experiences of disabled children in the child protection system. We have sought to remedy this by commissioning research to understand their experiences better. The Deaf and disabled children talking about child protection report summarises the findings of original research carried out by the University of Edinburgh/NSPCC Child Protection Research Centre.

Signs of distress are often mistaken as being related to the child’s impairment rather than a cry for help

Despite clear, and sometimes multiple disclosures, only a small proportion resulted in positive action leading to the abuse being stopped. Expressions of distress were often assumed to be related to the child’s impairment rather than an indication of abuse. A respondent from Deaf and disabled children talking about child protection research said:

"I tried to tell people quite a lot of the times, like when I was nine I was sectioned because I tried to kind of take my life kind of thing cos I couldn’t handle it anymore and I was sectioned for like three months and even then nobody asked me why did I do it."
Sara who was sexually abused from the age of 8


Lack of abuse awareness, feeling afraid or alone and lack of services are barriers to seeking help

These included:

  • a lack of awareness of what constitutes abuse in deaf and disabled children, leading to ambiguity in the minds of both children and adults about the best course of action.
  • how fear and isolation as features in many disabled children’s childhoods enabled perpetrators to mask the abuse.
  • the invisibility of disabled children in services, where services were absent, inadequate or inappropriate.

Supportive relationships and access to specialist help could better protect them from abuse

Supportive relationships and access to professional interpreters were key enablers of protection for deaf and disabled children.

Parliamentary round table held to discuss how we can close the gaps

This week we held a parliamentary round table to highlight some of the current safeguarding and child protection imbalances disabled children face. We shared the findings from our research review We have the right to be safe, and our new commissioned research 'Deaf and disabled children talking about child protection'.

We welcomed this opportunity to facilitate this important discussion about safeguarding disabled children. It was clear that things have not changed for disabled children in decades, despite there being plenty of guidance to help professionals recognise every child as a unique individual. We need to translate that guidance into practice. Major cultural change is needed to improve the visibility and protection of disabled children.

There was consensus in the room that one piece of legislation that is needed is to make PHSE (Personal, Health and Social Education) and SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) compulsory.

We believe that some of the gaps in the safeguarding and protection of disabled children can close, so are asking for change in three areas:


  • Establishment of a cross-sector advisory and consultation group on promoting the safeguarding of disabled children
  • Raising awareness amongst professionals and the public of the vulnerability of disabled children
  • Sex and relationships and personal safety skills education for all children including disabled children

Policy and practice

  • Safeguarding disabled children is included in professional training courses pre-qualification
  • Key stakeholder agencies (social care, education, health, criminal justice system) prioritise safeguarding disabled children and review and monitor practice
  • Three yearly follow up Ofsted thematic inspections on protecting disabled children (following up from Ofsted 2012 with the next one in 2016)
  • A review of disabled children's experiences in the Criminal Justice System including the use of intermediaries


Further research on safeguarding disabled children with a particular focus on vulnerabilities and prevalence (including a UK equivalent of Sullivan and Knutson 2000 in the States)

Roundtable attendees included:

  • Paul Maynard MP, Chair of the Young Disabled People APPG
  • Anne McGuire, chair of the Disability APPG
  • Baroness Walmsley, Vice-Chair of the Children APPG
  • Council for Disabled Children
  • National Deaf Children’s Society
  • Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
  • Contact a Family
  • Crown Prosecution Service

Redress the balance to give disabled children access to right protection and support

We believe that every childhood is worth fighting for. We’re not asking for the safeguarding needs of disabled children to be placed above other children. We’re just asking to redress the balance so that disabled children are given the right access to preventative measures and the right support when they have been abused. Only then can they be truly given an equal right to protection from abuse. Just as every child should be.

Deaf and disabled children talking about child protection

Research report into children's experiences of the child protection system.
Find out more

‘We have the right to be safe’

A report identifying key issues about safeguarding disabled children.
Find out more

Let's talk PANTS!

The Underwear Rule - #TalkPANTS - is a simple way that parents can help keep children safe from abuse. Join Pantosaurus and parents talking PANTS.
Find out about PANTS