Dubai: Children with disabilities are more likely to suffer from physical and emotional abuse and neglect than other children, said an expert during a session held at the Global Educational Supplies and Solutions (GESS) and Global Education Forum (GEF) in Dubai.

“Research found that children with disabilities are three or four times more likely to be abused. Research has also found that neglect and abuse affects the development of a child’s brain and all its functions,” said Dr Soledad Valenzuela, director of Quality Assurance at Arabian Child, a Dubai-based consultant and training company for early child education.

Dr Valenzuela said this is the case because there are common beliefs about children with disabilities that make them vulnerable.

“People think that they are unable to understand and learn, that they are unable to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and fantasy, and, ultimately, cannot communicate,” she said.

Because of such common beliefs, Dr Valenzuela said adults tend not to teach children with disabilities how to communicate or how to protect their body integrity, causing them to be more vulnerable.

“Many people assume that children with special needs are expected to be quiet and so train them to be passive, so when something actually happens [to them], they do not react. This makes them more vulnerable to be manipulated,” she said.

She stressed that children with disabilities should be taught about body integrity and the right to the ownership of their body, particularly since they are likely to need help in hygiene and therapy, and so they may be used to having their body touched.

Society should change its perception about children of this category and their need for communication, said Dr Valenzuela. It should also focus on what these children are capable of and focus on what it can do to help them. Children with disabilities can learn skills and can differentiate between truth and falsehood, she said. These children may also be more likely to be abused due to failures in the system and the failure to recognise the signs of abuse.

“In the case of Wudeema, the Emirati child who was tortured and killed by her father and stepmother, she went to school with her head shaved, yet people did not react.”

Dr Valenzuela said people involved in the care of children should be trained on how to read the signs [of abuse] so they can refer and report the case. Drivers and cleaners [in school] should also be trained in dealing with children, she said.

Dr Valenzuela added that children are most likely to be abused by people they know and trust, so it is important a stringent hiring process is put into place with mandatory references and police reports to be presented by applicants.