By Suzanne Duryea

Lee en español.

Every year on December 3 we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, raising awareness in the hopes of breaking down barriers and prejudices that prevent social inclusion. Among people with disabilities, children are especially vulnerable as undetected disabilities in early years and delays in rehabilitative initiatives lead to delays in development. Estimates point to one in every 10 children being born with a disability or acquiring it during the early childhood or adolescence years.

Early inclusion —and early identification— is therefore critical to contribute to maximizing the development potential and improving stimulation for children within the first five years of life.

Benefits of Early Identification

In considering programs to improve the early identification of disabilities in children, it is not uncommon to hear naysayers remark that given the scarcity of programs for young children with disabilities in Latin America and the Caribbean early identification is best avoided lest it serve only to stigmatize children and traumatize parents. While it is certainly true that most Latin American and Caribbean countries currently do not offer the array of programs with sophisticated curriculum as found in some high-income countries, this attitude of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is not the answer. The gains from early identification and intervention of disabilities in young children are well-known whereas omissions can have adverse effects on disability status and long-term development.

For instance, early identification can help foster stimulating environments where families, health-care, and education professionals are better prepared to support the development, inclusion, and active participation of children with disabilities. Furthermore, it can enable timely, effective and adequate access to specialized care, where needed.

Cost-effective, Innovative Initiatives

High quality parenting programs can be a key part of a more comprehensive approach to early interventions for children with disabilities. Professor Hannah Kuper, Director of the International Centre for Evidence in Disability, spoke to the InterAmerican Development Bank last month about innovative initiatives in Brazil and Malawi that are targeted to children with severe disabilities, including the developmental difficulties associated with Zika and cerebral palsy. The objective of such programs is not to burden parents but to empower them with awareness about the rights of children with disabilities, information on access to programs and services, and essential care practices such that they are providing appropriate developmental stimulation.

The program in Brazil, for example, consisted of approximately 10 sessions to parents, with a sizeable share of fathers participating. The parent groups were led by trained therapists as well as by expert mothers who received training. The evaluation of the program is still underway, but the preliminary results show that parents highly value the program.

Across the region the existing home visiting programs and broader parenting programs aimed at improving developmental stimulation and health in early childhood can easily include differentiated modules for parents of children with disabilities. There are a host of other innovative interventions being implemented worldwide that demonstrate high levels of resources or years of training are not required.

For example, a storybook app designed by Gallaudet University professor Melissa Malzkuhn, showcased in a conference hosted by the IDB to promote social services for people with disabilities, helps deaf children develop early literacy skills in reading and signing, including fingerspelling. The advance of new technologies, communities of practice, as well as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) will undoubtedly put additional tools in the hands of parents to promote developmentally appropriate practices in the home and even more importantly, advocate for provision of high quality and inclusive Early Childhood Development (ECD) programs such that children, regardless of their condition, can meet their full potential.

Let us not be timid in our efforts to identify disabilities at early ages; instead, let us try to creatively address the challenges in ways that children may ultimately be empowered to flourish in life.

What other innovative approaches of early identification and early intervention would you propose? Write in the comments section or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.

Suzanne Duryea is a Principal Research Economist in the Social Sector of the Inter-American Development Bank.

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