Almost twice as many boys as girls in Australia had a disability, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Around 9.6% of boys and 5.4% of girls aged 0-14 years had a disability in 1998. For severe disability, the corresponding figures were 4.9% for boys and 2.5% for girls.
The Children with Disabilities in Australia report is the first comprehensive overview of childhood disability in Australia. It uses several information sources to focus on children aged 0-14 years, covering the characteristics of children with disabilities, their needs and circumstances, and the services, benefits and assistance provided to them and their families.
Approximately 7.6% of children aged 0-14 (296,400 children) were estimated to have a disability in 1998, and of these about 3.7% (144,300 children) were described as having a severe disability.
AIHW report co-author Louise York says that 3.7% of all the children in this age group had a physically-related disability, and 3.7% had an intellectual or learning disability.
The report found that almost all children with disabilities were taken care of at home. Care was primarily given by mothers, who made up 85% of all primary carers. Fathers comprised 10% of primary carers.
'We found that over half of these family members spent more than 40 hours a week giving direct care to their child,' Ms York said.
'And the mothers, especially, of children with a disability experienced more stress than other mothers, reflecting the time and emotional commitment involved in raising a child with such high support needs.'
Ms York said that financial stress was also a factor, with research conducted in Australia, the UK and the USA showing a strong association between childhood disability and low family income.
When asked to nominate the area of greatest need for support, primary carers were most likely to identify financial assistance (38%), more respite care (27%) or more emotional support (12%).
A range of government and community formal support services are available to families of children with a disability, including income support, respite care, therapy, aids and equipment services, and housing and crisis accommodation services. A large proportion of government support services are provided through the Commonwealth State/Territory Disability Agreement (CSTDA).
Assistance is also provided through the education system, particularly through special schools. But overwhelmingly the trend is towards mainstreaming of children with disabilities within the education system.
In 2002, 81% of children with disabilities attending government schools and 91% of children with disabilities attending non-government schools attended mainstream rather than special schools.