The pandemic’s wake-up call for accessibility in the Early Years

Here’s how we can make early education more inclusive
June 9, 2021
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • The pressures of the pandemic came with a learning opportunity: they showed us how, within early education, we can do things differently to make life easier for children with disabilities and their families.
  • Guest authors Kathryn Underwood and Gillian Parekh, who research disability and inclusion in early education, will explore where this problem came from, and what we can do about it.
  • You’ll pick up new ideas on how the pandemic affected families of children with disabilities — and how it presents learning opportunities for better accessibility in the future.

For children with disabilities and their families, the pandemic shined a light on how we make space for those with additional needs.

In early education, healthcare and beyond, we’ve grappled with uncomfortable reckonings about what governments consider to be essential. And for the families that were organizing childhood disability services before the pandemic, they’ve got unique insights about what we can improve as we reopen, and reconsider the way we do things.

From our own work with families, we know that inclusive, accessible child care is essential. So are the many programs and services that enable children and families to develop community connections, organize, and participate in other clinical services. As we try to move beyond the pandemic, we’ve got an opportunity to bring those conversations front and center.

So let’s take a look at what inclusivity means for child care, and what we might improve moving forward.

Re-thinking ‘essential’ 

As researchers in early childhood and school-age disability, we’ve been learning from families, educators and children about what they have considered essential throughout the pandemic. 

For families of disabled children, the losing access to child care had very real financial and social consequences. As a result of program closures and cancellations, many families have reported increased experiences of exclusion throughout the pandemic, such as:

  • Disability programs and services deemed ‘non-essential’ either moved online or were cancelled altogether. 
  • Formal and informal childcare and respite services were also heavily restricted. This was also true for families who were reliant on family support systems, such as grandparents, for care. 
  • In some instances, some families lost all support services, which dramatically shifted the capacity of families to support their children in their own homes. 

Before the onset of Covid-19, early identification and early intervention were a cornerstone, although a demanding one, of early childhood services. The professionals who conducted identification also support disabled children’s inclusion in mainstream early childhood and school-based programs. But in many cases, we saw these services paused or deprioritized as part of our pandemic response.

These decisions about which services are prioritized and deemed ‘essential’ in the face of crisis tells us something about who is valued. Before the pandemic and even still, we have seen repeated government failures to protect the rights and safety of disabled people more broadly throughout the pandemic. 

When we’ve seen how this trend affects disabled children and their families, it’s time we take another look at why accessibility and inclusion in early education is so important.

Why does accessibility in the early years matter?

Children’s early years experience impacts their lifelong outcomes — it’s a time where every child needs (and deserves) to feel valued for who they are. 

At the same time, we’ve observed a greater need to resist some idea that only children who demonstrate ‘normative’ development have a right to full participation in early education. Of course, this isn’t a willful decision — but with developmental goals and strains on educators’ budgets and time, there’s a risk for these ideas coming into play.

This tension is especially present in early education, because of the concern that there is a “window” for intervention for children with disabilities. Of course, there are differing opinions on this, particularly from disability communities and those who resist the western medical model of disability. But the reality is that the right to early intervention is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). 

Prior to the pandemic, many families were told that intervention must happen early. Our service and education systems are designed for early intervention, and opportunities for intervention significantly drop at school entry. 

In our recent research, discriminatory attitudes around disabilities presented a clear and present barrier to families' access to inclusive care and educational settings. In some cases, families were recommended to bypass kindergarten, keep their children home or in specialized care settings and only enroll once they reached grade one age. 

Thinking ahead, we have to consider how the shifts from this pandemic will shape access to early education, and how that will affect the families of children with disabilities. 

Learning from the past and moving forward

Will we be able to move forward so that more disabled children are included in early education, without onerous extra assessments and endless advocacy from their families?

 We join the many voices advocating for greater disability justice, and awareness of how governments diminish or cut services deemed ‘non-essential’ — and how that disproportionately impacts families of disabled children. 

To improve access and inclusion of disabled children in early education, we propose these four key directions.

  1. Understanding the experience of children with disabilities

If we are to emerge from the pandemic with better understanding of ableism and disability discrimination in the early years, educators must learn more about disability rights. But we must also understand that disabled experiences are diverse, and that issues around access are experienced in different ways. You might look at this framework to get an idea of how you can create a more inclusive environment for children with disabilities.

  1. Appreciating the work of disabled children’s families

As part of the recovery from the pandemic for families, early childhood educators should recognize the work of families through the pandemic, and in accessing services prior to the pandemic. In our interactions with families, we must be aware that families have likely had many other experiences with inclusivity (or lack thereof), that might affect how they approach conversations about that within early education. We’ve got to value the viewpoints of families, and resist overloading them with more work whenever possible.

  1. Updating our policies to include greater flexibility

Now is the time to speak with the families of children with disabilities, to learn about their experiences during the pandemic, and how early education can be more supportive and inclusive of their needs. The best policies come from these open conversations with the individuals in your own network.

  1. Understanding the early years system services

The pandemic has shown just how important early childhood services are for disabled children and families. The conversation about early childhood in a pandemic recovery has centered almost entirely on childcare, but the early years is a whole system of services which has particular importance for disabled children and their families.  For early childhood educators working in childcare, it’s important to recognize and advocate for other forms of early childhood education, support for family members, recreation programs, and opening of child-specific opportunities. 

The big ideas

download pdf
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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