The number of disabled youngsters has risen dramatically in Eastern Europe since the collapse of communism, the UN Children's Fund said on Wednesday.
The region has struggled to help all the children in need
In a new report, UNICEF said the total number of disabled children across 27 countries tripled from around 500,000 in 1990 to 1.5 million a decade later. The surge was largely due to greater recognition, rather than to an actual increase in disability, UNICEF said.
However, that does not mean the lot of such youngsters has changed radically since the region's political and economic transition kicked off in 1989.
"Nations can be judged by the way in which they treat the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged," said UNICEF regional director Maria Calivis.
Despite legislative changes, most of Eastern Europe's disabled children continue to be confined in segregated facilities and special schools, suffering from stigma and discrimination, UNICEF said. They eventually move on to adult institutions for the disabled, where their childhood problems are perpetuated.
Many cases undocumented
In addition, the figure only represents disabled children included in official statistics -- a million more are thought to go unregistered, UNICEF noted. "Although children with disabilities have become more visible since the beginning of transition and attitudes towards them and their families are changing, many remain simply 'written off' from society," said Marta Santos Pais, head of UNICEF's research team.
Poverty and disability often go hand in hand in Eastern Europe, each fuelling the other, said UNICEF. Families whose children are disabled tend to be poorer than other families. Disability continues to be poorly diagnosed and often goes untreated.
"Deep poverty and a chronic lack of alternatives combine with outdated medical approaches neglecting the child's best interests and explain the high rates of child abandonment and placement in institutions," said Santos Pais. "The reality is that many parents feel they have no choice but to give up their children. What these families need is strong social and economic support."
Countries in the UNICEF study ranged from new EU members such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Estonia, to Balkan nations, Russia, Ukraine and former Soviet republics in Central Asia.