Counts One in 12 Children As Disabled
Census Reflects Increase Of Handicapped Youth
by D'Vera Cohn,
Washington Post Staff Writer, Friday,
July 5, 2002; Page B01
One of every dozen U.S. children and teenagers --
5.2 million -- has a physical or mental disability, according to new
figures from the 2000 Census that reflect sharp growth in the nation's
young handicapped population over the past decade.
In the Washington area, the census reported that
87,000 young people, or one in 14, were handicapped. The disabilities
captured by the census could range in severity from mild asthma to
serious mental illness or retardation demanding full-time care.
The figures, which covered children ages 5 to 20,
are the first collected on childhood disability in the decennial
census in more than a century. But data from other sources have shown
a rapid increase in the number and rate of childhood handicaps.
Special-education enrollment rose twice as fast as overall school
enrollment in the past decade. And a growing number of children
receive federal Social Security payments because they suffer from
The rising numbers come after a period of dramatic
change in the nation's approach to disabilities. A vision of
inclusiveness has been written into laws requiring equal access to
services, including the 25-year-old federal law guaranteeing education
to all handicapped children and the 10-year-old Americans With
While the extent to which society should accommodate
people with disabilities is still being argued in courts and public
discourse, the rising numbers already present a challenge to school
systems and other public agencies.
Some reasons for the rise can be quantified. But it
is difficult to know precisely how much is attributable to an increase
in certain conditions and how much is explained by greater
recognition, changing definitions or more willingness to report a
Improvements in medical care now can save
low-birth-weight babies, whose greater risk of problems may explain
some of the increase. Also, medical advances are allowing more people
with spinal cord injuries or Down syndrome to live longer. Childhood
obesity is rising, and with it the risk of disease such as diabetes.
But there are more theories than answers for the sharp rise in autism,
asthma and learning disabilities.
The definition of disability has broadened to
include conditions such as attention deficit disorder, which decades
ago was often not even recognized. Diagnosis of disability also has
become more precise and aggressive. And some people with disabilities
may be stepping forward because of lessened stigma or the availability
Glenn T. Fujiura, a professor of disability studies
at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that although the
reasons for the increase may not be clear, the results are. "More
children are coming forward with needs and limitations that must be
met," he said.
Steven Fine, a federal employee who lives in
Columbia, has seen this firsthand as the father of a 12-year-old boy
with severe autism, a neurological disease.
"Ten years ago, when my son was diagnosed, autism
was a rare thing that no one had ever heard of," Fine said. "Every
year since then, at parents' meetings, the number of diagnoses seem to
have increased exponentially.
"Now doctors are much quicker -- maybe a little too
quick -- to say your kid has autism," Fine said.
Poor children are more likely to be disabled,
surveys have shown, but why that is true is still being debated. The
District, which has the region's highest poverty rate, also has the
highest rate of childhood disability, at 10 percent. The region's
lowest child disability rate, 6 percent, is in Loudoun County, whose
poverty rate is the lowest in the region.
Experts offer several possible explanations for the
link between poverty and childhood disability, including a higher risk
of premature birth or birth to a drug-addicted mother, poor nutrition
or more exposure to lead paint, which can cause brain damage.
"If you look at children with disabilities, they are
more likely to be in single-parent homes, they are more likely to be
poor, they are more likely to be in homes where secondhand smoke
exposure is a risk," said Dennis Hogan, a Brown University sociology
professor who studies disabled children. "But the direction of the
cause and effect is not certain. Single parenthood, per se, is not
more likely to produce a disabled child, but poverty associated with
being a single mom may well produce that result."
Among metropolitan areas, the Washington region's
childhood disability rate ranks in the bottom quarter, and its
household income is among the highest. The metro areas with the lowest
childhood disability, according to 2000 Census figures analyzed by The
Washington Post, are well-off ones such as Hunterdon County, N.J.,
Stamford, Conn., and the university areas of Charlottesville and
The metropolitan areas with the highest child
disability rates -- at least 10 percent -- include Lewiston-Auburn,
Maine; Huntington, W.Va.; and Dothan, Ala. All have above-average
For people of all ages, the census counted 50
million disabled nationally, and more than 740,000 in the Washington
area. Specialists say the census numbers probably understate the
disability rate by not including people with mild problems, such as a
minor speech impediment. That is one reason the nation's
special-education enrollment is higher than the census total.
As special education is expanding, so are other
activities for disabled children. A Montgomery County soccer league
for the handicapped expects to double in size this fall. Parents also
increasingly are pressing to include their disabled children in
standard summer camps, team sports and after-school programs.
At the Early Years Academy in Manassas, which
operates Adventure Day Camp during the summer, "it used to be rare"
that children needed to have inhalers and other equipment on hand to
prevent or stop asthma attacks, said Samia Harris, school principal
and camp director. "Now it just seems to be the norm."
Ellen Tuttle, a school administrator who lives in
Herndon, enrolled her 12-year-old daughter who has multiple handicaps
in after-school classes in gymnastics, swimming, ice skating and
karate that are not just for handicapped children. She has found that
most teachers are willing to help, and her daughter often finds one
empathetic friend in each class.
"If I put her in a class that might have worse
disabilities than she has, she would not have anything to reach for,"
Ruth Spodak, a suburban Maryland psychologist who is
a special education consultant, said families who seek ordinary
activities for their disabled children encounter everything from
outright rejection to quick acceptance.
Some parents volunteer to coach teams or lead Scout
troops to ensure that their disabled child can participate, she said.
Spodak said children often have more success in "offbeat" activities
such as nature camps or performing arts groups.
"Things are moving in the right direction," Spodak
said. "I still think we have a ways to go in terms of educating the
public and making this a routine kind of availability."
Another trend that special education experts have
noticed -- with an impact on their budgets -- is that more children
are arriving with multiple disabilities, which require more intensive
services. "Although there has been growth in the number of students,
what we see as more significant is the number of services that special
education students are receiving," said Patricia Addison, Fairfax
County's special education director.
Down the road, more challenges await. Fairfax social
service agencies recently were approached by parents of middle school
students with multiple disabilities and little hope of being able to
work after graduation. County officials are discussing day-care
"Right now, if you say 'adult day care,' people
think seniors," said John Hudson, director of disability services for
the county's Department of Family Services. "They don't think about
young people coming out of school."
Database editor Dan Keating contributed to this