There is a compelling rights-based case for the prioritisation of programme development and the allocation of resources for the delivery of inclusive ECD services for children with disabilities and/or developmental delays. Numerous polices, including the most recent national ECD policy, recognise that children with disabilities have a right to equal access to inclusive quality ECD services. Moreover, there is an equally compelling economic case for the prioritisation of inclusive ECD services for children with disabilities. The Department of Social Development recently published a report on Elements of the Financial and Economic Costs of Disability to Households in South Africa. The report concludes that persons with disabilities have a lower educational status and lower earning capacity and that households with persons with disabilities have less income, and that this is particularly true in households with children with disabilities. The lower household income and lower educational status are, in large measure, attributable to Government’s failure to honour its international and Constitutional commitments to children with disabilities and their parents across their life cycles, starting in their early development years.
Disability rights according to the policy
The new national ECD Policy guarantees the provision of comprehensive early childhood development services to all children. It further calls for the prioritisation of resources and programming initiatives to ensure that children with disabilities or developmental delays enjoy equal access to inclusive early childhood development services. The Children’s Act similarly calls for the prioritisation of prevention and early intervention services to children with disabilities and their caregivers. The very recent Framework and Strategy for Disability and Rehabilitation Services in South Africa 2015 – 2020 and the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2015), and its implementation matrix, recognise and seek to give effect to the full and equal enjoyment of the rights of all persons with disabilities. Both policies recognise that the full enjoyment of their rights and their development and social and economic inclusion throughout their lives, fundamentally depends on children with disabilities accessing quality early childhood development services and programmes. The White Paper recognises these as providing the ideal opportunity for the “prevention, early identification and timely provision of assistance and support for children with disabilities …[that] Access to [ECD] services across government departments and spheres of government, and inclusive early childhood development opportunities, is required to unlock the potential of children with disabilities.” The White Paper specifically commits to ensuring that children with disabilities have equitable access to all ECD programmes and facilities, that disability-specific interventions and support are developed, and to developing a national integrated referral and tracking system to identify and provide appropriate support to high risk children.
The vision vs the reality
Unfortunately, there is much work to be done by all government departments and spheres of government to honour these commitments. As noted in the report on the economic costs of disability to households in South Africa, the development and inclusion of people with disabilities is severely curtailed at a great cost to them, their families and the country as a result of their inability to access essential services. Their exclusion from services that are essential to reducing their economic vulnerability start in their early and foundational years. Notable services which children with disabilities are denied, which lay the foundations for their development and social and economic inclusion as children, and later as adults, are education (starting with early education from birth); parenting support (psycho-social and material) to the caregivers of children with disabilities; and the provision of assistive devices and support to children identified with disabilities. The lack of access to appropriate services is caused by multiple factors, including inappropriate programming, inadequate resource allocation, as well as institutional weaknesses, such as the lack of effective coordination of health services.
The ECD policy is clear in the duty it places on all government departments and spheres of government. They are to ensure appropriate programme design and allocation of additional resources to ensure that all children with disabilities receive quality services from conception until they enter formal schooling. The policy recognises that the task is complex and that the government agencies will require support in fulfilling their responsibilities. It therefore commits to the development, by 2017, of a national multi-sectoral early childhood development guideline to secure universal availability and equitable access to quality inclusive ECD services. The guideline is to be rooted in prevention, early screening and intervention, appropriate support, and early learning and development opportunities. It is intended to, inter alia, provide direction to government departments and spheres of government on the development and design of appropriate programmes and services so as to ensure they are indeed developed, are of a high quality, and are available and accessible to all children with disabilities.
The legal and developmental urgency and enormity of the task of giving effect to the numerous policy commitments to ensure ECD services for all children with disabilities requires that the spotlight be placed on the development of the guidelines sooner rather than later. Moreover, given the cross-cutting character of the guidelines and diversity of experience that will be required to shape meaningful, cost-effective and realistically attainable programmes for children with disabilities, experts and representatives drawn from the full ECD sector cutting across all development domains must be involved in the conceptualisation, testing, implementation and oversight of the guidelines.
2017 is only 6 months away and work must begin in earnest – sooner rather than later. It would be most welcome if the work were to be begin under the leadership of a multi-sectoral groups of experts drawn from both government and non-government organisations within a time-bound plan of action for the development of the guidelines.
The Policy Post is written by Patricia Martin, the director of Advocacy Aid, a consultancy that provides advocacy support to the development sector. Patricia has worked as a child rights advocate and policy analyst for more than a decade and has a special interest in ECD policy and programme development and monitoring.