New ESRI research seeks to examine the future needs of children with disabilities in Ireland

The social inclusion of children with disabilities, and in particular their inclusion in early learning and care settings, is key to maximising their wellbeing, care and future education. It is therefore vital that children with disabilities have equal access to early learning and school age care and education. Joint research, published by the ESRI and Pobal explores a number of existing challenges experienced by children with disabilities in this area.

For policy to be appropriately informed and resourced, it is essential to have accurate information detailing the occurrence of childhood disability and considered in terms of complexity of need and geographical location. This research seeks to examine the future needs and requirements of children with disabilities using data from the Census of Population and Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study. It is intended the data evidenced in the research report will inform future policy and planning.

Key Findings:

  • Measurement of disability among children is a complex task and different datasets typically adopt different classifications of disabilities. In the most recent Census of Population (2016), 4.5 per cent of 3-5 year olds were reported as having a disability, an increase from 4.3 per cent in 2011. Using GUI data and based on teachers’ assessment for children aged 5, the comparable estimate of disability is 8.8 per cent. The gap between the estimates relates to differences in the questions asked and children’s age at the time of the survey.

  • There is significant variation in the occurrence of individual types of disability in the Census of Population. In 2016, 0.6 per cent of children aged 3-5 had a serious vision impairment, blindness, a serious hearing impairment or deafness, 2.3 per cent had a physical limitation, 2.6 per cent had an intellectual disability and 1.0 per cent had a psychological or emotional condition. 2.9 per cent of 3-5 year olds reported as having an ‘other’ disability not covered by the types of disability above-mentioned. There was considerable overlap between these categories of disability.

  • County-level differences are also observed in the overall measurement of disability among children. In 2016, disability rates among 3-5 year olds ranged from 3.6 per cent in Leitrim to 5.8 per cent in Offaly compared to a national average of 4.5 per cent. Rates of disability were consistently higher than the national average in Carlow, Cork, Dublin, Laois, Limerick, Offaly, Tipperary, and Westmeath in both 2011 and 2016.

  • The number of children receiving assistance from the Access and Inclusion Model (AIM), which is designed to support children with disabilities participate in the ECCE pre-school programme, has been increasing rapidly since its introduction in 2016. While there are geographical variations in the proportion of children with disabilities at the county-level who receive targeted supports under the AIM programme, AIM supports are demand-led and respond to the needs of children in the context of the pre-school they are attending, rather than diagnosis.

  • Demographic projections forecast a decrease in the number of children with a disability in Ireland by 2030 due to falling fertility rates.

Dr Adele Whelan, ESRI, commented, “It is critical that we have accurate information on the current and future rates of disability among young children, both at a national and county-level, to allow for planning that can facilitate the full participation of children with disabilities in early learning and care. This research highlights the complexity associated with measuring childhood disability and the importance of accounting for demographic factors in planning for future provision”.

Dr Margaret Rogers, National Manager, Better Start said:

“The Access and Inclusion Model (AIM) ensures all children, regardless of disability can access and meaningfully participate in the Early Childhood Care and Education Programme (ECCE) in mainstream pre-school. AIM helps pre-schools create an inclusive environment, empowering service providers to deliver an inclusive pre-school experience, ensuring that every eligible child can fully participate and reap the benefits of quality pre-school experience. 

Better Start on behalf of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY) continue to work closely with service providers to enhance and grow the Access and Inclusion Model so that all children have equal access to ECCE. This report provides important findings which will help us together with DCEDIY to plan for the future provision of the AIM programme”.