A guide for parents in Canada

Do you have a child with a disability or special need?

Whether one views effective inclusion as an optional add-on to high quality programs or as a more recently recognized dimension of high quality child care, the two concepts are inextricably linked.

—Irwin, Lero & Brophy, 2000
boy in a power chair

Full inclusion of children with disabilities in non-specialized child care is considered a key part of high quality early learning and child care. However, although this is the generally accepted best practice, as parents know, it may not be the reality.

For parents, this may mean that accessing high quality child care is even more difficult than for a child without a disability. As a 2021 study found, only one in five Canadian child care centres offered high quality child care for children with disabilities. This Canada-wide study of inclusion quality found that although staff in many child care centres are committed to including children with disabilities, they often lack the appropriate support to do so.

As child care in Canada is undergoing significant change, commitment to inclusion is identified for action in the action plans agreed to by the federal government and provinces/territories. But at the present time, finding the high quality child care needed for children with disabilities is likely to continue to be a challenge for parents for some time to come.

Provincial/territorial support and policies

Policy by Province/territory

Like all aspects of regulated child care, determining how children with disabilities are included in regulated child care is mainly the responsibility of provinces and territories. All provinces/territories have policies covering inclusion, and all provide support including financing to help regulated child care providers include children with disabilities in their programs.

Canada-wide, there are many similarities and many differences among provinces’/territories’ inclusion supports. Overall:

  • Provinces/territories use different terms for inclusion of children with disabilities, varying from “children with special needs”, “children in need of special support”, etc.
  • Funds are generally paid directly to regulated child care programs to help with extra costs (for example, additional staffing, special equipment, a resource consultant).
  • Parents must pay regular child care fees but usually do not pay for additional supports related to child care for a child with a disability.
  • In some provinces/territories, parents with a child with a disability may be eligible for a fee subsidy to help cover their regular child care fees whether or not they are in the labour force.
  • Today there are few regulated child care programmes that offer child care exclusively for children with disabilities; inclusion in non-specialized programmes is the preferred model.
  • Most provinces/territories have written policies to guide inclusion of children with disabilities in regulated child care.
  • In almost all provinces/territories, individual child care programmes have discretion in deciding how, and if, they will include a child with a disability. The programme’s finances, resources and inclination all play a role in determining whether full inclusion is provided or even whether a child with a disability is accepted at all.

Whether a child care service is able to care for children with disabilities may depend on finding the resources needed to facilitate inclusion. Parents may find that they have to advocate for their child and take the initiative to secure resources to help ensure full inclusion.

Challenges to inclusion

  • Prince Edward Island is the only province that requires most regulated child care (the more publicly funded and publicly managed Early Years Centres) to accept children with disabilities. In every other jurisdiction across Canada, children can legally be turned away or be asked to leave a regulated programme.
  • None of the provinces/territories require centre staff or family child care providers to have specialized training in working with children with disabilities.
  • Centres are not normally required to be physically accessible for children with disabilities.
  • Many centres do not have specialized in-house human or other resources for including children with disabilities.
  • Some provinces/territories require that to qualify for funding earmarked for inclusion in child care, a diagnosis of the child’s disability by a recognized professional must be available.