By Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo

Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities -an important day for development workers, disability leaders and policy makers, to reflect on how we are addressing the inclusion of persons with disabilities in development assistance.  According to the World Report on Disability there are one billion persons with disabilities globally. Some estimates suggest that globally, up to 150 million children (aged 0-18) experience some form of disability: learning, speech, physical, cognitive, sensory, or emotional (Global Partnership for Children 2012).

Evidence-based research and country based experiences tells us that early child development (ECD) is the cornerstone to all development and that learning begins at birth.  It tells us that the age of 0 to 6 years old is considered the golden age of a child’s development- a time when the human brain develops the fastest.

This fact unpacked, offers a robust rationale for investing in ECD and emphasizes the need to include children with disabilities. The recent focus on integrating services such as maternal and child health, nutrition, ECD initiatives, protection and education programs, validate the benefits of multi-sectorial collaboration and integration for reaching all children with and without disabilities.

To bolster the integrative approach two international legislative frameworks: the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities state that all children with disabilities have the right to develop “to the maximum extent possible”– an important principle for guiding policy, practice and implementation of inclusive ECD.

UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys for ages 2–9 used 10 questions to screen children for risk of disability. Children who screened positive for increased risk of disability were more likely than others to come from poorer households, face discrimination and restricted access to social services, be underweight, have stunted growth, and be subject to severe physical punishment from their caregivers. Overall, children screening positive in the disability survey participated in fewer early learning activities, but were only slightly less likely to attend school in most of the surveyed countries (UNICEF 2008).  

Yet sadly, the practice of neglect and unresponsiveness of children with disabilities persists often because of fragmented and isolated systems, policies and programs.  It is common that children with disabilities are considered “too young” or “uneducable” for the education system, “too disabled” for the health system, “too difficult to engage with” for the protection system.  Too often they fall through the cracks, seen as someone else’s problem or worse still, invisible.   The debate around children with disabilities is often about enrollment to formal inclusive schooling and while hugely important it neglects what happens before school going age. It overlooks some of the basic building blocks like early assessments and referrals, a birth certificate, care giver support, early learning and intervention, nutrition and family support all necessary for mainstreaming children with disabilities into society.

We know the gains of ECD programs can cultivate diverse abilities, overcome disadvantages and inequalities, and respond to developmental needs of young children with and without disabilities.  We recognize ECD initiatives come in a multiplicity of forms: playgroups, ECD centers, day care centers, private, public –all of which can and should serve as integrated points for service provision and referrals for children with disabilities and their families.

So as we ponder over the importance of International Day for Persons with Disabilities let’s remember that by doing nothing, we are failing the needs and rights of children with disabilities. Their exclusion can lead to a downward spiral of vulnerability, secondary disabilities leading to further exclusion and economic hardship on already struggling families. Research shows that early assessment and intervention with families can optimize children with disabilities learning potential and increase their chances to participate and thrive in inclusive, mainstream settings.

So clearly, inclusive ECD is a smart investment and an important challenge- the first steps to ensuring early inclusion, promoting equity and ultimately building inclusive societies.   

Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo is the USAID Coordinator for Disability Inclusive Development. She is a renowned human rights lawyer who has worked at the World Bank, UNICEF and served on the South African Human Rights Commission. Charlotte has written widely on human rights and disability and development. Views expressed in this blog are her own.

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