The COVID-19 pandemic has seen heavy restrictions on the delivery of services for young children with disabilities across Europe. The general lack of a comprehensive legal framework for Early Chilhood Intervention (ECI) services forced organisations to modify their own responses and security measures, leading to increased risks and financial uncertainty. Each country needs to urgently develop a coherent legal framework that will allow these services to support children and families also during times of crisis, based on the family-centered model, with provisions for (re-)training staff. The EU needs to include ECI in its future Child Guarantee
How can you connect and support a young child without any physical contact? That is the challenge Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) services had to face in the last few months. Not providing any care and support for the children and their families would cause exponential damage to their development and well-being, but there is often no state regulation on what the approach should be. In the education and r in the health sector, many services were simply closed down and often did not receive adapted personal protective equipment and guidelines on how to provide care and support during these trying times.
As in every sector, innovations flourished, with the use of technology to provide some forms of remote support to children and families, and some services providing support from the streets. These solutions were however complicated by mainly two elements. First, such a use of technology is dependent on the expertise in and access to computers and other ICT devices both for the service provider and for the families. More economically vulnerable families – which is often the case for families of a child with disabilities – have a harder time benefitting from remote support. Second, the funding of many such services is calculated based on the number of physical visits – which were near impossible during the COVID-19 outbreak and not in line with general health recommendations.
In the new transition period back to some form of normalcy, it is crucial that the legal and financial status of ECI services is clarified in all legislations to ensure these services can provide the care and support needed in the future, and it needs to happen now. Many families are still unwilling or unable to receive physical support, and countries should not wait for the next crisis to act. Member States also need to provide the training and retraining of ECI staff in the use of ICT to provide quality care and support.
The European Union should lead by example and needs to include the specific needs of informal education and care and ECI services in its legislative initiatives and reports. In particular, the upcoming Child Guarantee must reflect the specific needs of children with disabilities from the earliest stages and promote quality, family-centered services. The Child Guarantee should promote training of staff on inclusion of children with disabilities and the use of technology; adequate funding of services; and family empowerment.
Indeed, one thing that has been highlighted in the months of lockdown is that supporting young children with disabilities must pass through the support and empowerment of their families. Services can never be present at all times, and it is more effective and efficient to give families the tools to support their children, empower them in being the experts in their child’s development and well-being. The model of family-centered ECI services is more cost-effective for families and government spending, and allows services to better face such crisis as we faced
Note to editors
The European Association of Service providers for Persons with Disabilities is a non-profit European umbrella organisation, established in 1996, and currently representing over 17,000 social and support services for persons with disabilities. EASPD advocates for effective and high-quality disability-related services in the field of education, employment and individualised support, in line with the UN CRPD principles, which could bring benefits not only to persons with disabilities, but to society as a whole.