Handicapped children are also known as children with disabilities.
The term disability is applied to a collection of chronic disorders that usually occur before the age of 22 and typically last for a lifetime. Disabilities are defined as a physical or mental impairment and include conditions such as Down Syndrome, autism, epilepsy and cerebral palsy. Disability can sometimes affect a person's ability to learn or speak, take care of themselves, hold down a job and live independently.
Developmental disabilities are listed in a number of categories:
- Disabilities involving the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system;
- Disabilities related to hearing or vision loss;
- Disabilities related to metabolic disorders. Metabolism refers to the sum total of the chemical changes in the body that are needed to provide energy and repair or grow tissues. Metabolic disorders that affect children's development include thyroid diseases and phenylketonuria;
- Disabilities related to degenerative disorders, in which a child appears normal at birth and reaches some developmental milestones but then starts to lose the abilities they have attained.
Developmental disabilities are defined as mild, moderate, severe, or profound depending upon the amount of support the child needs. For example, a child with mild developmental disabilities may be able to benefit from special education programs, finish high school or a vocational training program, work in certain types of jobs and live with their family or in the community. Those with profound disabilities may require 24-hour care in a group home or institution.
Depending on the specific disorder, the diagnosis of disabilities can be made at different points before or after the birth of the child. Some disorders such as Down Syndrome can be diagnosed before the baby is born, while metabolic disorders like phenylketonuria can be detected by a post-birth blood test. The baby's doctor may also identify disabilities during regular check-ups, when they can observe the child's interaction with others. The pediatrician will test vision and hearing, as well as checking for developmental milestones. Parents who have noticed that their child does not seem to be walking, talking, or responding to them at the age at which these abilities usually appear will often consult a specialist. In some cases, learning disabilities are latent and identified during a child's school years.
Treatment for disabled children can be tailored to the individual child and their specific type of disability. Treatments and care fall into the following categories:
- Medications or surgery for specific physical or emotional problems;
- Special education programs;
- Vocational training for future employment;
- Speech and language therapy;
- Physical therapy;
- Psychotherapy and counseling for behavioral problems;
- Support services for people who are profoundly disabled. These may include nursing care as well as assistance with housekeeping, personal cleanliness, shopping and handling money.
The prognosis for children living with disabilities depends on the severity of the child's specific disability. The condition may be progressive and therefore likely to increase in severity over time. It could also affect the child's ability to get along with other people in daily activities, both in education and the workplace. Disabilities might in some cases shorten a person's life expectancy, although technological and medicinal advancements have enabled disabled children to enjoy a better quality of life and a longer life.
Between the 1960s and the 1990s, the United States and other developed countries moved toward individualized education and social support for children with disabilities. Rather than separating these individuals from the wider community, doctors and teachers aimed their focus on the needs of each person. An example of this involves placing the child in a classroom or study-related setting where they are allowed to interact with other children and students. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, which created four government funded grant programs to assist people with disabilities and their families.
A key and rapidly expanding area of research involves finding improved methods for screening. This is used to identify children with developmental disabilities as early as possible. Data collected from research studies has indicated that the earlier stage that these children are diagnosed and treated, the more likely they are to develop their full potential as they grow up.