IT would be easy to downplay or misunderstand the significance of funding problems for playgroups serving the needs of babies and very young Hunter children with disabilities, or at risk of development delay.
The word “playgroup” suggests laughter, children exploring the world and their interactions with each other, and parents discussing the joys and demands of caring for families.
There is no doubt Hunter early intervention playgroups for babies and young children with disabilities, and at risk of development delay, provide opportunities for the above. But they do so much more, which is why Hunter groups are described by Labor’s early childhood spokesperson Kate Washington as being “in despair” about their future.
The parents of children born with disabilities, or where there are concerns over children’s development, are confronted by many things, including doubt about the future and their ability to care for their children. One of the first major issues they face is isolation. There are many playgroups in the Hunter, but it is unreasonable to think that parents navigating the sometimes difficult path of supporting babies and children with disabilities could easily fit, and feel comfortable, in groups where other parents do not face those challenges.
Early intervention playgroups such as Hunter Prelude provide specialist therapists, but also link with social services such as domestic violence support, homelessness support and multicultural support, to support children at risk of developmental delays caused by family circumstances.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme is changing the lives of many tens of thousands of Australians by giving them much greater control over their lives. The NDIS’s focus on the individual is what makes it such an empowering scheme.
But it is increasingly clear that the individual focus of NDIS, and its remit to provide disability services rather than overall health and welfare services for individuals, can and has caused gaps, particularly where a state like NSW ends funding to groups like Hunter Prelude in favour of the national scheme.
There is substantial evidence that early intervention services for children, during a period of their lives after birth where they develop at an extraordinary rate, repays the community many times over. It is just as important for children with disabilities.
Submissions to a current NSW parliamentary inquiry into the implementation of the NDIS in this state show real alarm that vulnerable children in families that are already struggling are at risk of falling behind during those vital years. By the time they reach school their family disadvantage can become entrenched disadvantage – a particularly distressing form of developmental delay because it is avoidable. This is a federal/state issue that demands an urgent response.