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The invisible child

Children with disabilities often face the toughest barriers in society. Yet they are sometimes invisible when it comes to government policy and the work of experts.

This has been the case with the debate on child poverty and abuse. The Government White Paper and the work of the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty focus far more on ethnicity than disability.

This is because there is a lack of research and statistics on disability, especially compared to Māori and Pasifika. What evidence is available, points to a link between disability and poverty at least as strong as ethnicity, if not stronger.

We know that people with disabilities and their families make up a significant percentage of people on benefits. In 2011, 35% of people on a main benefit (main benefits exclude superannuation) claimed a disability allowance (See pages 30 and 235). By Comparison, 32% of people on main benefits identified as Māori (See Page 28).

Previous research has also shown that 26% of people on the Domestic Purpose Benefits (DPB) have children with disabilities.

39% of parents receiving the child disability allowance were on a main benefit or superannuation (See pages 114 and 115).

The employment statistics for people with disabilities are also worse than Māori or Pacifika. 45% of people with disabilities were in the labour force compared to 69.3% of Māori and 62.1% of Pasifika.

The lack of statistics also extends to related areas, including child abuse and maltreatment. Unlike ethnicity, the Ministry of Social Development does not identify whether a child has a disability when reporting on abuse and maltreatment in its statistical reports.

So we know the ethnicity of children in child abuse cases, but not whether the child has a disability. This is despite overseas research showing children with disabilities to be at acute risk.

One of the most comprehensive studies to date, which took place in America, found children with disabilities to be 3.8 times more likely to be neglected, 3.8 times more likely to be physically abused, and 3.1 times more likely to be sexually abused when compared with children without disabilities (See reference 13 in the article).

Education is another difficult area to get statistics. The Education Review Office provides a detailed breakdown of ethnic groups within schools, but no breakdown based on disability. I can tell you that 4%, or around 98 students, of Auckland Grammar School are Māori, but I can’t tell you how many students have special education needs or are in the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS).

The same is true for Early Childhood Education. The Ministry does not collect data on disability and participation rates, but does on ethnicity. This is despite, research pointing to major barriers for disabled children in early childhood education.

The lack of data causes major problems for priorities and policy. For example, the Ministry of Education in its early childhood education work is focusing almost exclusively on Māori and Pasfika.

Until the government and experts recognise and address the barriers children with disabilities and their families face, real solutions to issues like child poverty will be impossible.  

Sam Murray
Policy and Advocacy Team