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Opinion piece in The West Australian - Childcare funding model leaves kids with disabilities behind

From birth, children need secure, stimulating and responsive care to ensure healthy early childhood development.

In a country that prides itself on equality and inclusivity, it is disheartening to see that there are still children who are excluded from mainstream childcare. Families of children living with complex disabilities are not currently covered by the capacities of the current childcare model.

Many Western Australian families use childcare outside of the home at various stages throughout their child’s life. High quality formal childcare is informed by child-centred educational programs and practises and allows for individualised support that will address the diverse learning needs and abilities of all children.

The current system of childcare has enabled nearly one million typical Australian families to balance their parental duties with meaningful employment and higher education. These services have not only provided practical support but have also fostered early social and interpersonal development for approximately 1.4 million typically developing children.

The Australian Childcare Subsidy has been a crucial factor making childcare accessible and affordable for many of these families. 

The situation is vastly different for children with complex needs and disabilities.

It is estimated these children make up approximately 4.5% of the Australian population and primarily rely on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) for support. As of December 2021, NDIS reported there were 2,202 children living in WA with high needs and complex diagnoses. This did not include those children who’d not yet entered the NDIS, nor those who had been denied access. The NDIS funding also does not specifically cater for, nor fund, the engagement of these children in formalised childcare.

Typically, these families bear out-of-pocket expenses that are 11 times higher than those of typical families in order to provide an isolated care arrangement for their high needs child. The financial burden, coupled with the lack of support, can result in entrenched isolation, cumbersome mental health issues, unemployment and familial breakdown among these families.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data from 2018 shows 43,600 children and young people in WA, aged between 0 and 17 years, were reported to have a disability. This accounts for 7.5 percent of all the children and young people in that age range.

Families caring for children with disability need support. They need to have the right systems in place to recognise the needs of children with disability and their families when it comes to seeking childcare.

For children with disability, high quality formal childcare can enable early assessment and intervention. It can also assist families to find the appropriate support and services that can help their child develop and learn to their full potential and provide some respite to parents and carers of children with disability.

Advocates have reported that while some families with children living with complex needs and disabilities rely on the NDIS for support, some are left with no suitable options to meet their childcare needs. As a result, we’re seeing thousands of our most vulnerable children across Australia and their families being turned away from childcare and the benefits it can afford.

Imagine if we could provide facilities equipped with the necessary staff and equipment to cater for the multifaceted needs of these children and all the flexibility and appropriate fee structures to match. If these much-needed services were available, many vulnerable families would have the opportunity to find a balance between their caring responsibilities and the opportunity to engage in education or employment.

The major obstacle in bringing this vision to life lies in the absence of a commitment to support families to afford such specialised services, in the same way typical families are supported. 

The purpose of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children and young people have the right to special education and care, so that they may live a full life.

Australia needs to act now to ensure our future generation of people with disabilities are afforded the same opportunities as all children and young people.

Published in The West Australian on Wednesday 26 June 2023 on page 52.