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Children with a disability are children first and foremost, and deserving of the same rights and protection as other children. By definition, any child with a disability should also be considered as a Child In Need. A child can be considered to be disabled if they have significant problems with communication, comprehension, vision, hearing or physical functioning.

Disabled children are more likely to suffer Significant Harm. Where there are concerns about the welfare of a disabled child, they should be acted upon in the same way as with any other child. Expertise in both safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and disability should be brought together to ensure that disabled children receive the same levels of protection from harm as other children.


The available UK evidence on the extent of abuse or neglect among disabled children suggests that disabled children are at increased risk, and that the presence of multiple disabilities appears to increase the risk of both abuse and neglect.

REMEMBER - Harm may involve acts of omission in terms of meeting the care needs of disabled children as well as acts of commission.

Many factors can make a disabled child more vulnerable to abuse than a non-disabled child of the same age. Safeguarding disabled children demands a greater awareness of their vulnerability, individuality and particular needs.

Disabled children may be especially vulnerable to abuse for a number of reasons. Some disabled children may:

  • Have fewer outside contacts than other children, and be at risk of social isolation;
  • Receive intimate care from a considerable number of carers, which may increase the risk of exposure to abusive behaviour and make it more difficult to set and maintain physical boundaries;
  • Have an impaired capacity to resist or avoid abuse;
  • Have speech, language or communication difficulties that may make it difficult to tell others what is happening;
  • Be inhibited about complaining for fear of losing services;
  • Be especially vulnerable to bullying and intimidation (see Bullying Safeguarding Practice Guidance);
  • Be more vulnerable than other children to abuse by their peers; and
  • May not have access to someone they can trust to disclose that they have been abused.

Additional factors include:

  • The child’s dependence on carers could result in the child having a problem in recognising what is abuse. The child may have little privacy, a poor body image or low self-esteem;
  • Carers and staff may lack the ability to communicate adequately with the child;
  • A lack of continuity in care leading to an increased risk that behavioural changes may go unnoticed;
  • Lack of access to ‘keep safe’ strategies available to others;
  • Disabled children living away from home (see Children Living Away from Home (including Private Fostering Arrangements) and Young People who may be Homeless Procedure) in badly managed settings are particularly vulnerable to over-medication, poor feeding and toileting arrangements, issues around control of challenging behaviour, lack of stimulations and emotional support;
  • Parents’/carers’ own needs and ways of coping may conflict with the needs of the child;
  • Some adult abusers may target disabled children in the belief that they are less likely to be detected;
  • Signs and indicators can be inappropriately attributed to disability; and
  • Disabled children are less likely to be consulted in matters affecting them and as a result may feel they have no choice about whether to accept or reject sexual advances.


The following abusive behaviours must be considered alongside universal indicators in relation to other forms of abuse, including sexual, physical and emotional abuse and neglect:

  • Force feeding;
  • Unjustified or excessive physical restraint;
  • Rough handling;
  • Extreme behaviour modification including the deprivation of food medication, or clothing;
  • Misuse of medication, sedation, heavy tranquillisation;
  • Invasive procedures against the child’s will;
  • Deliberate or non deliberate failure to follow medically recommended regimes;
  • Non- compliance with programmes or regimes;
  • Failure to address ill-fitting equipment e.g. callipers, sleep boards which may cause injury or pain, inappropriate splinting;
  • Misappropriation/misuse of a child’s finances; and
  • Leaving the child with a range of inappropriate carers.

Protection and Action to be Taken

Safeguards for disabled children are essentially the same as for non-disabled children. Particular attention should be paid to promoting a high level of awareness of the risks of harm and high standards of practice, and in strengthening the capacity of children and families to help themselves. Essentially, disabled children should be treated with the same degree of professional concern afforded to non-disabled children. Professionals from all agencies must be aware that the belief that disabled children are not abused or beliefs that minimise the impact of abuse on disabled children can lead to a denial of, or failure to report abuse or neglect.

People caring for and working with disabled children need to be alert to the signs and symptoms of abuse. See Definitions, Context, Principles.

Where there are concerns about a child with disabilities a referral should be made in accordance with the Contacts and Referrals with Children’s Social Care Procedure.

Children with disabilities should not be left in situations where there is a high level of neglect or other forms of abuse, because a practitioner feels that the parent, carer or service “is doing their best”. Carers will need to be challenged in the same way as carers of non-disabled children.

Throughout any Assessment (see Assessment - Hull Children's Social Care Assessment Protocol), including a Section 47 Enquiry, all service providers must ensure that they communicate clearly with the child with the disability, the family and with one another as there is likely to be a greater number of services and practitioners involved than for a non-disabled child. All steps must be taken to avoid confusion so that the welfare and protection of the child remains the focus. Where there are communication impairments or learning difficulties, particular attention should be paid to the communications needs of the child to ascertain the child’s perception of events and their wishes and feelings.

Safeguards for disabled children are essentially the same as all other children:

  • It should be common practice to enable disabled children to make their wishes and feelings known in respect of their care and treatment;
  • Ensure that disabled children receive appropriate personal, health and social education (including sex education);
  • Make sure that all disabled children know how to raise concerns and give them access to a range of adults with whom they can communicate. This could mean using interpreters and facilitators who are skilled in using the child’s preferred method of communication;
  • Recognise and utilise key sources of support including staff in schools, friends and family members where appropriate;
  • Develop the safe support services that families want, and a culture of openness and joint working with parents and carers on the part of services;
  • Ensure that guidance on good practice is in place and being followed in relation to: intimate care; working with children of the opposite sex; managing behaviour that challenges families and services; issues around consent to treatment; anti-bullying and inclusion strategies; sexuality and safe sexual behaviour among children; monitoring and challenging placement arrangements for children living away from home;
  • Encourage appropriate and prompt information sharing; and
  • Raise awareness with parents and carers of the vulnerability of disabled children to abuse or neglect and of their role in the safeguarding process.

Communication and Giving Evidence

Carers are relied upon (whether family or paid carers) as a source of information about disabled children and to interpret and explain behaviour or symptoms. Professional staff can potentially feel out of their depth in terms of knowledge of a disabled child’s impairment, where the familiar developmental milestones may not apply.

Where there are communication impairments or learning difficulties, particular attention should be paid to the communications needs of the child to ascertain the child’s perception of events and their wishes and feelings. This includes the use of an intermediary.

Children's Social Care and the Police should be aware of non-verbal communication systems, including when they might be useful and how to access them and should know how to contact suitable interpreters, facilitators or intermediaries.

Agencies must not make assumptions about the inability of a disabled child to give credible evidence, or to withstand the rigours of the Court process.

Each child should be assessed carefully and supported where relevant to participate in the criminal justice system when this is in their interests as set out in Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings: Guidance on Interviewing Victims and Witnesses, and Guidance on Using Special Measures (Ministry of Justice) which includes comprehensive guidance on planning and conducting interviews with children and a specific section about interviewing disabled children.

Participation in all forms of meetings such as Child Protection Conferences and Core Groups must be encouraged and facilitated. The use of specialist advocates should be considered.

See also Working with Interpreters Safeguarding Practice Guidance.

Training and Supervision

Safeguarding disabled children training is required for all practitioners working with disabled children, their managers and ancillary staff such as care assistants, escorts and personal assistants. Training should ensure that decisions about disabled children who lack capacity will be governed by the Mental Capacity Act 2005 once they reach the age of 16. This multi-agency training is available through the Hull Safeguarding Children's Partnership training team. It is additional to the single or multi-agency safeguarding training requirements for all agencies dependent on practitioner’s roles and responsibilities.

Access to the local learning programme is via the Partnership Learning Centre on 01482 318949.

It is also a requirement under Working Together to Safeguard Children that those working to ensure children are protected from harm should have access to advice and support through supervision. A process of supervision should be available to all staff working with disabled children and their families.

Legislation and Guidance

The Children Act 1989 s17(1) creates a general duty on Children's services authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are ‘in need’. So far as is consistent with this duty, Children's services authorities must promote the upbringing of such children by their families.

The definition of ‘children in need’ is to be found at CA 1989 s17(10), which provides that a child is to be taken as ‘in need’ if:

(c) he is disabled.

At subsection (11) the definition of ‘disabled’ for the purposes of CA 1989 Part III is given as follows:

‘For the purposes of this Part, a child is disabled if he is blind, deaf or dumb or suffers from mental disorder of any kind or is substantially and permanently handicapped by illness, injury or congenital deformity or such other disability as may be prescribed’.

Amendments to this Chapter

In July 2022, the link to the guidance on Achieving Best Evidence was updated to the latest version.