Inclusion for Early Childhood Workers with Disabilities
Inclusion for Early Childhood Workers with Disabilities
My experience as a person with disabilities has informed my career and shaped my responsibility to students. I have experienced many challenges, from workplace discrimination to fear of disclosure; however, I believe my disabilities have made me a stronger leader, intellectually curious, a driven researcher, and a passionate advocate of my students. I know I am not alone in my experience either.
According to the World Bank, 15% of the world’s population experiences a form of disability, with the prevalence higher in developing countries (2022). Yet we know little about the experiences of workers with disabilities in the early childhood profession and how to support inclusion.
What do we know?
Quality Early Childhood Development (ECD) has an immense impact on a child’s holistic growth, cognitive development, and lifelong wellbeing. The ECD workforce is responsible for ensuring that children and their families receive the support and resources needed for children to develop social, emotional, and physical skills (Britto et al., 2017; Burchinal et al., 2010). The early childhood workforce is critical for supporting children’s growth and needs, protecting children’s rights, and providing quality care and education.
Addressing the needs of young children with disabilities is an ongoing global priority (UNESCO, 2021); however, there is a major gap in data and literature around understanding the experiences of people with disabilities once they enter the workforce. These gaps in literature and data collection within ECD limit our understanding of the experiences of workers with disabilities across the globe. The existing data focuses on people with disabilities working with children outside of ECD. This data shows preconceived cultural notions, including an assumption that people with disabilities are underqualified. A case study in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation showed the opposite is true. The study illustrated the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, which include increased profitability, loyalty, and productivity (Lindsey, 2018).
So why does the inclusion of workers with disabilities in early childhood settings matter? It’s all about representation! Representation encourages positive perceptions of people with disabilities. It allows children from a young age to interact with people who look, act, and have life experiences like them, and those who are different from them. Representation reinforces positive perceptions of workers with disabilities and other marginalized groups, and about what they can achieve in society.
Second, people with disabilities are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes such as higher poverty rates and lower employment levels (World Bank, 2022). Creating opportunities for employment for people with disabilities within ECD will prevent these adverse socioeconomic outcomes. Within the United States for example, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were labour shortages within ECD. Childcare employment plummeted by more than 30% at the height of the pandemic and is still 7% lower today in the United States (U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 2022). Hiring and creating an inclusive work environment in ECD settings can help address the labour shortages and decrease levels of unemployment for people with disabilities.
Third, the 2006 Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, offered a globally recognized legal framework for all countries and highlighted the efforts of many to improve opportunities for people with disabilities. Similarly, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states that, “disability cannot be a reason or criteria for lack of access to development programming and the realization of human rights” (World Bank, 2022). Despite the legal framework available, workers with disabilities are underrepresented in the early childhood profession.
What are the main barriers to employing workers with disabilities in ECD settings?
One barrier to inclusion is the lack of preventive measures to ensure equal opportunities for members of the ECD workforce with disabilities. Currently, there is an emphasis in the literature on students with disabilities, special education teachers, and improving legislation (Neca et al., 2020). In one study, teachers with learning disabilities expressed that they feared disclosing their disabilities to their colleagues, students, and supervisors. They fear that disclosing this information will affect their peers’ attitudes towards them, impact their sense of self-esteem at work, and that they would be vulnerable to discrimination (Valle et al. 2004), despite their good performance inside the classroom (Riddick, 2003).
Another challenge is that individuals with disabilities often feel overlooked or excluded from the workforce. There are many reasons for these barriers: social and cultural stigma, discrimination, implicit biases, employers’ lack of disability awareness, perceptions, and a lack of training opportunities (Tal-Alon et al., 2021).
How can we strengthen inclusion?
We can only achieve inclusivity by hiring and supporting more people with disabilities to work with young children. We need to ensure the rights of workers with disabilities within the workforce and push for further studies (Tal-Alon et al., 2021). To include more people with disabilities within the ECD workforce, I propose the following recommendations as supportive interventions:
Implement workforce policy to create training and information programs about disabilities for all employees, as well as workshops and courses that ensure the workforce with disabilities receives proper training. Improve focus on the capacity building for disabled workers within ECD. Enforcing inclusive policies can help build internal capacity for supporting the rights and needs of people with disabilities.
Invest in systems, services, and accommodations for workers with disabilities across the ECD sector. This would include building resources for appropriate accommodations or inclusive recruitment and onboarding of employees.
Deepen research focused on opportunities, experiences, and data collection for inclusion of all minority groups, including people with disabilities within ECD.
About the Author:
Chiara Nicastro will be graduating from her master’s at the University of Pennsylvania studying International Educational Development in December 2022. Ms. Nicastro has five years of experience across the field of education and is a former McNair Scholar and a Fulbright Scholar recipient. Her pursuits focus on early childhood development and inclusive education. You can listen to Ms. Nicastro present her research on YouTube.
I thank Dr. Michelle Neuman for her feedback on this blog post and for her guidance on the underlying research.
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