Every parent hopes to get a healthy baby, but when a child with special needs is born, then a compassionate service that is willing to help is what truly might support such family.
Armorer Wason, a social work specialist from the UK with a focus on children’s issues and advocacy, provides a thorough introduction to the concept of early intervention, a worldwide method of support to parents of children with special needs. She currently manages an EU-funded project that is helping to establish this method in Ukraine.
- Can you describe the ‘early intervention’ method? Why is it crucial to establish it as a common strategy in Ukraine? How does it help children with special needs?
It’s a very different approach from the medical model, where disability is regarded primarily as a physiological problem. Early intervention is based on the idea that as soon as parents or nurses see that a child is not developing properly, the parents should receive help immediately. The earlier parents get support, the better chance their child has. The brain develops at the highest rate between birth and age three. This time is absolutely critical for a child’s development.
It’s about helping parents to feel confident and to develop the skills to interact with their child one-on-one. If the child feels that he or she has a stable, consistent relationship with his or her mother, the child’s brain can develop better. That is part of the reason why orphanages are so detrimental. Children who grow up in that type of environment miss the chance to develop a consistent relationship with parents.
- How exactly does early intervention help children with special needs?
Early intervention helps a child to get the necessary treatment to increase the likelihood of future integration into every day society life. I know that nowadays there is a big focus on inclusive education in Ukrainian schools, but this is often only possible when children have benefitted from early intervention before they get to school. The strategy provides the opportunity to develop early social skills, which will help children with special needs fit in better in kindergarten and elementary school.
This is an important opportunity to reduce the extent of disability and avoid isolation and exclusion from society. For instance, children with autism find it very difficult to communicate with people and to interact with other children. Every child is different and there is no one solution.
- What are examples of early intervention services? Are they available in Ukraine?
Early intervention’s effectiveness is scientifically proven. A lot of research has been done on this internationally, but Ukrainian researchers have only just started investigating this method. Kharkiv Early Intervention Institute, who is our partner, has made a lot of progress in this area, and they have done research to show the impact of their work. Early intervention initiatives have also started up in Lviv, Odesa, and Uzhgorod.
There is a nice orphanage in Kharkiv run by Roman Marabyan. He is changing the traditional approach. Mothers come to the home with their babies and stay together while they are learning how to look after their child with special needs. This is a revolutionary model in Ukraine. It is a very big shift, but Ukraine is ready for it.
- What is the European experience in implementing early intervention initiatives?
The UK has legislation dictating that professionals from the fields of education, healthcare, and other social services must work together in the interest of children. The country ensures that services for children are integrated, and that parents don’t have to search around for different specialists. Often in Ukraine, when a child has a disability, parents run from doctor to doctor, many of whom may say they can’t help. It’s a terrible experience for parents.
At the European level, there is a European organisation called Eurlyaid that advocates for early intervention in the EU. They have also done a lot of research in the field. The World Health Organisation also promotes this method globally. So, given its global prevalence, it is shocking that post-soviet countries demonstrate relatively low awareness and use of early intervention.
- What does Ukraine need to do to implement this method?
It’s a big challenge, because it’s about moving away from a medical model and towards a social model of thinking about and addressing disability. With the social model, it is not about the problem a child has, but about the child’s exclusion from society.
Ukraine needs an attitude change and this should happen at the level of the public, service-providers, and doctors. We need to close the orphanages and make sure that we support parents. In Britain, there are no orphanages. They just don’t exist. The best people to support a child are parents.
The Ukrainian government has promised to develop early intervention services and it is working together with the ministries of health, social policy, and education. Ukraine signed a memorandum of understanding with UNICEF, and international and Ukrainian NGOs to create a national platform on early intervention. Ukraine supports the concept nationally and regionally and has a will to change.
- How does your project contribute to early intervention in Ukraine?
We are encouraging parents to become advocates for early intervention. At the moment, we are working with parent-led organisations in 10 regions of Ukraine with support from the European Union and UNICEF. They are helping us train parents to understand what early intervention is, and how to make contact with national and regional authorities to say, ‘come on guys, we need to do this!’
We also conduct research to understand what kind of services parents need compared with what they are able to access. We also produced a series of videos in which parents interview each other about their experiences during the first years of their children’s lives. Those are fantastic life stories.
EU-funded project “Strengthening the capacity of parent-led civil society organizations (CSOs) to support the delivery of reforms that address the rights and needs of young children with disabilities and special needs (CWDs) in Ukraine” is implemented by the International NGO HealthProm (London), the National Assembly of people with disabilities of Ukraine (NADU) and the Charity Fund “Early Intervention Institute “(CFEII, Kharkiv) as part of the “Parents for Early Intervention in Ukraine” Programme. Early Intervention (EI) provides families, which are raising children with disabilities, with maximum conditions to have a life of ordinary children: to attend kindergarten and school, to become more independent after graduation. At the same time, children with disabilities get the required special assistance, support and rehabilitation while their parents can fully work and relax having no fear thoughts about the future of their child.
Eurlyaid “The European Association on Early Childhood Intervention”: http://www.eurlyaid.eu
Ukrainian platform for early intervention: http://rvua.com.ua
Kharkiv Institute of Early Ivntervention: http://ei.kharkov.ua
Photo credit: HealthProm