Inclusive Child Care—A Dialogue about a Critical Movement for Young Children with Disabilities  

Last summer, GEEARS’ Senior Health Policy Manager, Callan Wells, and Research Manager, Caitlyn Sanders, went on a series of road trips to visit inclusive child care programs around the state. They observed preschool classes in which young children with disabilities learn alongside typically developing kids, picked the brains of program directors, and debriefed after each visit over roadside tacos. Now, they discuss the intel they gathered, which will inform their advocacy going forward.  

Callan: Okay, Caitlyn, in honor of DECAL’s Inclusive Early Learning Week (known to some as Valentine’s Day week), let’s reminisce about our epic inclusive child care program tour. We did it this past summer, when it was about 100 degrees out and I was newly pregnant.  

Caitlyn: So many memories! And of course, we’re not done with our tour. We visited programs in Gainesville, Augusta, and Metro Atlanta. But we still have to see a couple programs in South Georgia.  

Callan: After maternity leave, definitely! But for now, why don’t we start by defining ‘inclusive’ child care. That means making sure that children with disabilities feel like valued members of the program’s community. The programs we toured are really intentional about that. Their playgrounds and classrooms serve all of the children in the program and don’t seclude anyone from participation in every single activity. 

Caitlyn: In the programs we visited, around 40% of the children enrolled there have some sort of disability. And they’re not just checking a box. Inclusion is a core value.  

Callan: I think the centers that we visited do a really, really good job of meeting both groups of students’ needs and then facilitating their engagement and interaction together. They ensure that these children feel that their needs are just as important as anybody else’s needs; that their contributions are just as important as anybody else’s. When children experience that in early childhood, that sets them up for this lifelong experience of understanding that they are important. 

Caitlyn: That’s important for children with disabilities, but it’s also important for children that are typically developing because they’re learning how to engage with someone that might learn differently and communicate differently than they do. And it’s important that that happens when they’re teeny-tiny. That’s a really important skill for everyone to have as they engage in the world. 

Okay, so we’re in agreement, these programs we visited were exemplary in placing value in all their students. And that’s one reason we chose to do this tour, right?  

Callan: It wasn’t just tacos.  

Caitlyn: Ha! The tacos were very, very important, but what we really wanted to do was understand the policies, funding streams, and partnerships that make inclusive childcare centers like these successful so that we could hopefully help other childcare centers envision what that will look like for them. 

Callan: One of the memories that really stands out for me is one of the programs that we went to—its built environment and how that lends itself to inclusion. On the playground, there were swings that you could wheel a chair onto and there were slides that were specifically designed for children with cochlear implants. 

Caitlyn: And in that built environment, everybody’s needs were thought of and being met! It was so seamless how all of the children were able to interact in that space!  

Callan: There isn’t this view of, ‘You’re different than me.’ Instead it’s really like, ‘You’re my friends. All of us are here to play, so let’s play!’ That was the guiding principle on that playground.  

Caitlyn: It’s the same idea at meals. The kids who had feeding tubes ate at the same time as the kids who were eating with their hands at the same time as the kids who were eating with utensils. Everyone was at the same table. 

Callan: I know we’re not talking about tacos yet, but as a food-oriented person, that was a really a beautiful example. It was, ‘We’re breaking bread together, no matter what that looks like.’ 

Caitlyn: Okay, so we know what works well, but how?  

Callan: I was surprised by how much of these programs’ funding must come from philanthropy because we don’t have mechanisms in place to fully support the breadth and depth of the needs of young children and their families. 

Caitlyn: That’s one hoop the directors jump through when they aren’t willing to compromise around services. You know, ‘We know that this child really needs this service every single day or for multiple hours a day.’  

Callan: Another solution was, one of the programs brought in students from the nearby medical college to both build the workforce and better serve their children.  

Caitlyn: I thought that was a really creative way of solving two problems at once. 

Callan: Well, you have to get creative when 15% of their insurance claims get denied but the programs continue to provide the services based on the evaluations, not on insurance claims. The directors also had really thoughtful recommendations around how to better serve young children with disabilities and their families, recognizing that early childhood in itself is incredibly expensive, let alone the health needs of some of their students. 

Caitlyn: Right, child care alone, we know, is such a huge added expense for a family. And on top of that, all these therapies and services?!  

Callan: And potential denials of services and having to pay out-of-pocket for a lot of the equipment. So, these programs are wanting to offer tuition for children with disabilities at a lower rate, in recognition of these huge expenses. That means often having to supplement the tuition with philanthropic funds. 

Caitlyn: But even that isn’t going to work if the workforce isn’t there. We just don’t have enough early childhood educators. We don’t have enough physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, special instructors, service coordinators. . . In all of these incredibly important fields, we don’t have enough, especially in our rural areas. So, there are times when families are not able to get the full breadth of the services that they need. 

Callan: If we want true access, we have to increase the workforce, which includes increasing funding for the workforce. So even though we’re still formulating our specific policy recommendations for this area, we know that will be one of them.  

Caitlyn: We’re waiting to release specific recommendations because we always want our advocacy and our recommendations to be rooted in what people with lived experience need. That’s an expression of the providers’ needs. We also want to make sure we’re including family voices as well. Families will help us tailor our recommendations. 

Callan: A first step toward that is we are able to support some of these families coming to our advocacy day, Strolling Thunder. We’ve heard that families with disabilities in these inclusive programs have really wanted an opportunity to be able to share their voice in the context of influencing policy. I hope legislators at Strolling Thunder see that, while these early years are such a challenging time for so many parents, when there’s a child with a disability, it’s this added layer of complexity and expense. These are folks who really need our support. They really need systems to work for them so they aren’t, say, spending their life savings on equipment and on programs that they hope will give their child the life that they want for them. 

Caitlyn: Speaking of sharing meals. . .  

Callan: The tacos.  

Caitlyn: The tacos! I think our most memorable taco experience was after we’d been to Sisu Integrated Learning in Gainesville. We took the tacos outside, and we sat them on the hood of my car, bent over the car, and ate them. 

Callan: It was kind of a spiritual experience. 

Caitlyn: We were going to another meeting, and we were late because we had stayed at the program way longer than we expected to, because both of us had so many questions, and we wanted to just hang out with the kids longer. So, we ate them in less than five minutes. 

Callan: They were so delicious and spicy. Afterwards, our sinuses were completely open. 

Caitlyn: We were both laughing really hard because it was such a silly experience.  

Callan: And also because it had been such a joyful visit to that child care program!  

Caitlyn: I think that’s a big part of the paradigm shift that needs to happen. So, our challenge is, how can we as a community come together to create more environments that feel supportive and inclusive and joyful?  

Callan: That’s the mission, Caitlyn. I’m excited to keep working on it with you.  

Caitlyn: Same! Our road trip to South Georgia is in the works.