For all children to have access to quality early childhood education, it's important that early childhood services provide inclusive programs which reflect their community’s diversity and support the specific learning requirements of all children, including those with disabilities. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children with disabilities, educators would be aware that programs and support needs to be delivered in culturally appropriate ways.
What does 'culturally appropriate support' mean in practice?
To learn more about how educators and services can support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families of children with disabilities, I sat down to yarn with Sophie Hall, Director of Mudyi, Aboriginal Autism Support Group, and Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi mother.
Sophie created Mudyi (meaning 'friend' in Wiradjuri language) after her son Dalton was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD, Selective Mutism, and severe speech and language delay. As their family started on this new journey, she found that there was a lack of support for Aboriginal families who have children with autism and/or other disabilities. She created Mudyi to provide a safe and unique space where culture, community and identity can be a part of the broader yarn.
I was interested to hear Sophie’s perspective on how she feels the early childhood education space as a whole can better support both children with disabilities and their families.
- The need for support to be culturally appropriate is clear, but what does this actually mean in practice?
- What are the barriers that impede Aboriginal children with disabilities in accessing early childhood education and the supports they need?
Sophie explained to me that for her, a lack of understanding and awareness seems to be the first barrier faced by families.
I found especially in my community that there was a huge gap in the early childhood space in terms of educators knowing what support they should be offering families," shares Sophie. "It is very important for service providers and educators to be building connections between support networks, parents and educators.
Sophie (right, front of photo) hosts Autism Parent Support Group catch ups (when COVID restrictions permit)
We need to see educators, families, and health professionals in a local context all working together within their community, to create a supportive learning environment that meets the early learning needs of Aboriginal children with disabilities. Such a partnership would also help combat against the isolation that Sophie spoke to me about, that is often experienced by Aboriginal parents and carers of children with disabilities. Strengthening relationships between services and empowering the voices of families is essential.
When we are talking about Aboriginal families however, this needs to be done in ways which are culturally appropriate. To learn more about this I spoke to Nikita Austin, who is a Wanaruah woman and professional Speech Pathologist who has worked across a variety of settings, including Indigenous community health.
Nikita is passionate about supporting inclusion and in closing the health gap. She recently created a digital resource centred on highlighting Indigenous resources for health professionals and educators.
When working with First Nations children during those early years, it is extremely important we provide them with culturally appropriate and respectful resources and tools to support and promote meaningful participation. Not only do we want the child to willingly participate, we also want to ensure their families feel comfortable to participate and interact with us as therapists or educators.
Nikita’s emphasis on the need for the family to feel comfortable to participate and interact is a really important point and relates back to the level of cultural safety that is found in services. When respect for culture and community is not visibly evident in a service, families may not feel comfortable in engaging and this can contribute to a sort of invisible or unspoken barrier between effective communication between families and services, which of course, hinders development of effective and meaningful plans of support for the child.
Nikita of Eat.Speak.Repeat speech pathology emphasises the need for cultural safety in services
When we say approaches should be ‘culturally appropriate’, this involves having educators demonstrate a level of cultural capability that can only be achieved through professional engagement in cultural capability training, and active engagement with their local Aboriginal communities. Educators cannot plan the most practical ways to support a child without engaging with their families, who know that child best, and to do this, educators and services as a whole, need to be visibly culturally capable.
What does it mean to be 'visibly culturally capable'?
The term ‘visibly culturally capable’ shouldn’t be a daunting one. By this we simply mean that when a First Nation’s family enters your service, they feel culturally safe. At surface level, this might mean something as small as seeing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags flown with pride out the front, an Acknowledgement to Country on the wall in your foyer, Aboriginal artwork on the wall, or perhaps your Reconciliation Action Plan in clear view somewhere in your reception area.
On a deeper level however, visible cultural capability will mean that as they engage with you, First Nations families will recognise the inclusion of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural lens through your programs and curriculum, and your engagement with your local First Nations communities and events. Of course, in order for services to feel comfortable in doing this, undertaking cultural capability training is likely to help.
Let’s look for a moment at what professional engagement in cultural capability training might entail. You will find that there are a wide range of offerings available in each state and territory. Typically, such training will:
- Offer participants Indigenous perspectives around Australia’s history and the impact that past colonial and governmental policies have had and continue to have on our First Nations communities and families.
- Allow participants to critically review their own practice on a cultural capability spectrum, identifying biases, gaps and areas for improvement.
- Provide practical strategies for how participants can respectfully embed Indigenous input into their organisation and programs.
In Victoria for example, SNAICC offer Early Years Cultural Competency training. In New South Wales, the NSW AECG offer similar programs for teachers. There are also many Indigenous consultancies who offer similar services. An extensive list of these businesses can be found at www.supplynation.org.au
In all these types of training, you will see a focus on first looking back to our past, and then moving forward to where you are today, to lastly, what actions you can take to get where you want to be in your cultural capability journey.
The reason they often start by looking at the past, is because there is a large proportion of the Australian population that are unaware of the devastating reality of Australia’s history, in which First Nations communities suffered significantly from the brutal impacts of colonisation. Widespread dispossession and the horrifying impacts of the governmental protection policies that followed initial colonisation has resulted in the significant intergenerational trauma which continues to permeate through First Nations communities today. Without an understanding of this, it is impossible for educators to demonstrate cultural capability.
There are also a range of online resources to look to where you might start your cultural capability journey. Websites like Common Ground (https://www.commonground.org.au/) offer good insight into many aspects of Indigenous Australia’s cultures. AIATSIS also offers a plethora of information and is a great starting point.
Respect, communication and commitment can help prevent 'double disadvantage'
With statistics showing that there is higher disability prevalence amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (the 2016 Census estimated that Indigenous children aged 0–14 were 1.7 times as likely as non-Indigenous children to require assistance), the need for educators to be able to support these children in the early years is critical. When Aboriginal children with disabilities are not provided with the support needed in these early years, we see a type of ‘double disadvantage’ happening, with cycles of disadvantage exacerbated throughout the child’s later years.
We have just recently celebrated this year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day, where we see the theme is ‘Proud in Culture, Strong in Spirit’. All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, including those with disabilities, deserve access to an early childhood education that helps them to be just this, ‘proud in culture, strong in spirit’. Respect, communication and a commitment to ongoing learning and listening is a must if we want to achieve this and support Indigenous families of children with disabilities.
Resources, helpful links and further reading
Common Ground - learn about Indigenous Australian history, heritage and culture from a First Nations perspective.
Supply Nation - a database of verified Indigenous businesses.
First People's Disability Network Australia - a national organisation of and for Australia's first peoples with disability, their families and communities.
Autism, our kids our stories — voices of Aboriginal parents across Australia - A book from Positive Partnerships, an organisation that support school-aged children on the autism spectrum.
Talking points - Sheets that provide a talking point for school staff and service providers to have a yarn with parents and carers about their child created by Positive Partnerships. They provide supportive information about autism and creating an awareness of some impacts and strategies that could help.
Working with Indigenous children families and communities — lessons from practice via Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Ours to Share - A resource created by speech pathologist Nikita Austin to help you navigate buying genuine Indigenous Australian products for your clinic, classroom or home.