Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Education issued joint federal guidance on inclusion of children with disabilities in early childhood programs. This effort to advance inclusion of students with disabilities reflects progress that has been marked during this year’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the 50th anniversary of Head Start. Agencies across the administration have celebrated these milestones by reaffirming our country’s commitment to equal access and opportunity for all Americans.
All people deserve to be meaningfully included in all facets of society and for many inclusion begins in early childhood programs. With the help of the IDEA and ADA, inclusion in the most integrated setting continues into elementary and post-secondary education, employment, housing, and other aspects of community living. Inclusion in early childhood programs can set the stage for a life of inclusion and full participation in society.
Although educational outcomes for students with disabilities have greatly improved with the help of the IDEA, many children with disabilities and their families still face significant barriers to accessing inclusive high-quality early childhood programs. According the HHS and Education Department, as of 2013, more than half of preschoolers with special needs accessed special education services in segregated settings. The guidelines explains that many preschool children with disabilities are only offered the option of receiving special education services in settings separate from their peers without disabilities. Many children with autism are excluded from typical preschool classes at a time when they could be greatly benefitted by interacting with their same-age peers.
With this guidance, federal agencies are urging states, local education agencies, schools, and programs to work together in establishing and implementing policies of inclusion and tracking goals. The guidance calls for a shared responsibility and commitment within communities and a robust partnership between families, schools, communities, and governments at all levels.
The guidance commits to a vison of full inclusion and participation in society shared by all Americans beginning with early education, “By striving toward this vision and implementing these recommendations we can move forward as a country in honoring the rights of all of our youngest children and living up to the American ideal of offering an equal opportunity for all.”
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