Federal officials are outlining steps that states, schools, early intervention providers and others should take to alleviate “significant barriers” children with disabilities face accessing inclusive child care programs.

In a policy statement issued jointly this week by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, the agencies are doubling down on the expectation that early childhood programs are inclusive.

“All children with disabilities should have access to high-quality inclusive early childhood programs regardless of type of disability, level of services and supports needed, race and ethnicity, language, and geographic and economic circumstances,” the 71-page document reads.

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The policy statement, which builds on one originally released in 2015, details the legal foundation for supporting inclusion in early child care programs and includes updated recommendations, models and resources to help stakeholders increase opportunities for inclusion in early learning.

The guidance makes clear that children with disabilities should have the opportunity to be served alongside their typically developing peers as youngsters and to continue to do so into elementary school and beyond. Making that happen is a shared responsibility of federal, state and local governments, as well as early childhood systems, programs and providers, school districts and schools, officials said.

“Inclusion in high-quality, evidence-based early childhood programs sets the stage for continued inclusion through school years and beyond,” said Glenna Wright-Gallo, assistant secretary for the Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. “Setting high expectations for early inclusion paves the way for children with disabilities to reach their goals and to learn, live and thrive in school and in their communities.”

Despite the earlier guidance, HHS and the Education Department noted that research continues to show that families of infants and toddlers with disabilities face difficulty finding and keeping child care and, as a result, these children enter child care later and have fewer hours and less access than other kids.

As of 2021, preschoolers with disabilities in more than half of school systems received special education services separate from their typically developing peers. And, participation in inclusive programs has remained largely unchanged over the last 40 years, according to the policy statement.

“Government, at all levels, early childhood systems and schools must work together to provide necessary support to parents with their kids,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra. “Together, we can ensure every child with disabilities can participate in high-quality early childhood programs.”

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