The Lost Children: Where’s the Data?

Highlighting the importance of keeping better data on special needs children in Jamaica.


The Jamaican Population Census of 2001 noted that there were 162,800 persons who self-identified as having a disability in Jamaica. Children under 14 make 21% of that population (Unicef, 2018) and yet information about how these children are impacted, and whether they are receiving essential services that could help them – is few and far between. 

Note that we opened this article with data from 2001 – more than 20 years old! 

Inequities experienced by persons with disabilities often begin in the early childhood years. Disability has been associated with stigma and discrimination, as well as increased likelihood of family poverty and child vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. There are many best practices that support these individuals and create better outcomes throughout the world, but not enough is being done in Jamaica. Shining the light on the issue with a deeper understanding of the need is an important part of the process.

At Smile A While Foundation, our goal is to help these families and children with special needs by creating access to services, therapy and support needed on the island. This all starts with understanding where and why the deepest needs exist.

Better Data Leads to Improved Care

While we know the need is great, and the resources are limited – among those limited resources being the data itself. Even the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) identifies a need for improved data: among their strategies to achieve improved scenarios for people with disabilities in Jamaica they cite “Data-led decisions.” 

Data-led decisions would “ensure that demographic data on the population of persons with disabilities is more effectively and consistently captured to ensure an accurate representation of the population; and promote evidence-based policy development and targeted interventions.” 

Beyond that, the education system in Jamaica is just not equipped to serve special needs, probably a precursor to lacking data on that population.

A directory of education institutions published by the Ministry of Education shares information about 1,654 schools, yet the Ministry reports 38 formally registered schools with resources to support special needs students – 13 special schools and 25 mainstream schools. That’s only 2% of schools available to help these kids.

It’s no surprise, then, that school attendance among this cohort is low. Children with disabilities in Jamaica attend school at 20% lower rates than those without disabilities. Girls with disabilities report 75% attendance, and boys with disabilities report 69%, while children without average 95% attend school.

“Our mission is to provide therapy services to neurodiverse children in areas where access to such support is not widely available. The problem with this is that there are so many children and families living with disabilities in poverty unable to reach out for help,” stated Joanne Oates, Smile A While Founder + Executive Director.

Another milestone to receiving education and care is access to transportation. Over 27% of children in rural areas were living in poverty (Planning Institute of Jamaica) with a lack of reliable transportation. Many of the available disability-related services are concentrated in urban areas, thereby denying children residing in rural areas access to social and care amenities (According to Henry-Lee, 2014). Providing services, programs, and care to children that live in rural areas is key to providing children with disabilities the therapy and care they need. 


Therapeutic Care for Brighter Futures

We know that early therapeutic intervention for special needs children drastically improves their quality of life and that consistent access to trained professionals is key. 

Our goal now is to figure out a way to bring more access to effective care for children and families. Our program is designed to provide training and knowledge to Jamaica-based professionals, as well as additional professionals through our clinics to allow every child with special needs in the Caribbean to have a bright future when given the support they need.

As we continue our work, we also shine a light on their needs and hope to see increased attention to just exactly what those are, and why this lack of resources exists.


Help us support special needs children

Help us support special needs children in Jamaica with your donation. Smile A While is excited to be opening the ECHO Autism Jamaica Program later this year as a way to expedite care – this is where we need your help! 

Each therapy session requires a licensed Occupational Therapist on the call to diagnose patients and help bring the care they need to them. Your $50 donation sponsors one of these calls for a child and family in need love, therapy, and support, 

Join us with your donation today at