What is childhood disability?
A disability is an impairment that impacts a person's core activities, which are:
- mobility — the ability to move around
Disability in children is common. About 4 in 50 children have a disability.
A child with disability may not be able to do some things as easily as most other children. Disability can:
- impact how they physically function
- affect their senses such as seeing or hearing
- make it hard to think clearly
- involve their mental health and social skills
Disability in childhood can have a lifelong impact on:
- physical and mental health
- emotional wellbeing
- social life
Children with disability may have additional needs. They may experience challenges when it comes to their:
- access to education
- inclusion in the community
- ability to develop skills
These children need as much support as possible and may benefit from early childhood intervention.
Everyday life can be challenging for a child with disability and their family. However, many people with a disability have strengths and interests that can be developed.
What are the different types of childhood disability?
There are many types of disability. Some children are born with disabilities. Others develop after a child is born. Some disabilities are caused by injury.
Congenital disorders are present from birth. They can be inherited or caused by environmental factors. Common congenital disorders include:
- intellectual disability — where a child takes longer to learn than others and may experience delays in their development
- Down syndrome (Trisomy 21) — a common genetic condition that causes intellectual disability
- cerebral palsy — a physical disability that makes it hard for a child to control how their body moves
- Fragile X syndrome — an inherited condition that causes intellectual disability and learning and emotional problems
- hearing problems
- heart conditions
- blood and metabolism disorders
Find out more here about congenital disorders.
Some disabilities can develop after birth, such as some speech disorders.
Autism is a disability that is now known by the term 'autism spectrum disorder'.
Children aren't usually diagnosed with autism until after they have reached 2 years of age. Although its causes are not fully understood, autism has been linked to genetic factors.
Caused by injury
Physical, mental and behavioural disabilities can occur when a trauma or injury (such as falling from a height) affects the brain. Other causes of acquired brain injury include:
- loss of oxygen — such as due to asthma or after a near drowning
- infection — such as meningitis
Physical disability can also be caused by severe injuries, such as:
- a spinal cord injury
- losing an arm or leg in an accident
What is the difference between developmental delay and disability?
Disabilities are different from developmental delays.
Not all children develop at the same rate — some children naturally take longer to develop than others.
Developmental delay is used to describe when a young child is learning skills slower than other children their age. This does not mean they have disability.
If a child's developmental delay lasts until they are school age, it can then be described as a disability.
What do I do if my child has a disability?
If your child is diagnosed with a disability, a good place to start is to learn more about their disability. This will help you understand your child's needs and help you plan support and care.
Starting early childhood intervention is very important. Early childhood intervention caters to your child's disability, to support their development and wellbeing.
You may need to take your child to see a paediatrician (child doctor) and other health professionals. They can assess your child's needs and help you organise the right care and support.
If your child has a disability, you may also be able to access financial support.
How can I support my child's education?
Every child in Australia has the right to an education.
If your child has a disability, you can choose whether your they attend a mainstream school or a special school. This will depend on:
- your location
- the needs of your child
When choosing a school for your child, may be helpful to talk to other families in your area.
It's best to contact the school well before the enrolment date. This way, you can check that the school will be able to provide for your child's needs.
Your child may be eligible for funding support to help your child access school through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
What are my child's legal rights?
If you have a child with a disability, learning your child's legal rights can help you protect them from discrimination.
Knowing their rights can also help you navigate the disability service system.
In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 protects people with disabilities from being treated unfairly. It's against the law to discriminate against someone with a disability, whether the disability is:
- a learning disability
There are 2 types of discrimination outlined in the Disability Discrimination Act:
- direct discrimination — when a person with a disability is treated less favourably, such as being refused entry to a business.
- indirect discrimination — when everyone is treated the same, but it has a negative impact on someone with a disability, such as only having stairs and no wheelchair access.
This Act protects people with a disability by setting standards for:
- services — such as banking, the internet and public transport
- access to public places
People with a disability have the right to use:
- assistive devices
- carers and readers
- guide and hearing dogs, or any other animals trained to help
The Act also protects people with a disability from being harassed because of their disability. People with a disability have the right to not feel intimidated, insulted or humiliated by others.
It also provides protection for the family, friends and carers of people with a disability.
Other Australian Government laws that protect people with a disability are:
- the Disability Services Act 1986
- Social Security Act 1991
Talking about your child's disability
It can be difficult to talk with others about your child's special needs. But, it can also be a positive experience.
People will respond to your child's disability in different ways.
Some people may behave awkwardly around them. They may not know what to say or how to act. Other people may say things about your child's disability or act in an offensive way. You can choose to:
- ignore them
- talk to them about how their comments make you or your child feel
- make a discrimination complaint
It's a good idea to plan a response for when other people comment on your child's disability. This way, you don't have to think of a response on the spot.
If you would like, your response can include some education about your child's condition and needs. This can help build support and understanding in other people.
If you find it hard to talk with other people about your child's disability, you can see a qualified counsellor. They can offer support and guidance on dealing with your situation.
How may my child's disability impact me?
Having a child with additional needs can be draining — physically, mentally and emotionally.
If your child is diagnosed with a disability, it can be overwhelming and stressful. It's common to feel a range of different emotions, such as:
Understanding the disability service system can also be complicated and stressful.
How can I manage my feelings?
To help you understand, accept and manage your child's diagnosis, you can talk about how you feel with:
- your partner
- your other children
- other family and friends
This will also help support them during this time. You can seek extra support from a counsellor.
Avoid comparing your child with other children. Try to focus on your child's strengths and any progress they make. When your child reaches a goal, celebrate their efforts with them.
Remember to also care for:
- the needs of any other children you have
- your own adult relationships
Try to keep up your existing family routine. This can limit the stress on yourself and the rest of your family.
It's important to look after yourself as best you can. See the Resources and Support section to learn where you can find more help.
Resources and Support
You can find more information about childhood disabilities, through:
- The Association for Children with a Disability (ACD) — 03 9880 7000
- Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA) — 03 9417 1025 (Victoria) or 1800 222 660 (Regional and Interstate)
- People with Disability Australia (PWD) — 1800 422 015
If you are a parent or carer of a child with a disability, you can find support through:
- Disability Gateway — 1800 643 787
- The National Disability Insurance Agency — 1800 800 110
- Carers Australia and Carer Gateway — 1800 422 737
- ParentLine — 1300 1300 52
- Beyond Blue — 1300 22 4636
You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
Support for disability discrimination
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is responsible for investigating and acting on any complaints of disability discrimination.
You can make an enquiry or lodge a complaint with the AHRC via:
- telephone to 1300 656 419 (for the cost of a local call)
- email to firstname.lastname@example.org
- online at the AHRC website
Before making a complaint, AHRC suggests that you seek legal advice. You can access this through your local disability legal and advocacy service.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: June 2023