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Finding Childcare for Your Special Needs Child


Do you have a child with a physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disability? Does your child have special needs? Have you had a hard time finding a childcare program that will accept your child and provide appropriate care? This article will give you information about your child’s rights and explain how to get help finding a childcare program and making it work.

Can my special needs child go to a childcare program with children who do not have special needs?

Yes. Even though your child has a disability, he or she has the same right to an open childcare spot as any other child.

The federal law, called the Americans with Disabilities Act, says that childcare programs must accept disabled children, even if the programs are not specifically for children with disabilities. This is true for children with physical disabilities, such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, or cerebral palsy, or other special needs, such as use of a wheelchair. It is also true of mental, developmental, and emotional disabilities, such as ADHD, Down Syndrome, autism, bipolar disorder, learning disabilities, and delayed speech. This law applies to most childcare programs. There are some childcare programs to which it may not apply—for example, programs run by religious groups.

A childcare program can only turn down a child because of his or her disability if there is a real safety threat or the child needs very complicated medical attention or other very expensive individualized care. If a childcare program claims that a child is a threat or needs complicated care, the claims must be based on what a doctor says about the child’s actual condition, not just on the child’s diagnosis or on stereotypes.

What if my child needs special attention because of his or her disability?

If your child has special needs related to a disability, the childcare center has to try to meet those needs. This is true even if it means that the program has to change some of its rules or the way it does certain things. A childcare program can only refuse to change its rules or give your child extra help if it would be so expensive or difficult that it would make it hard for the program to function.

Examples of the extra help that a childcare program may have to give include: 

  • Use of special equipment or aids to communicate (unless it would cost too much money);
  • Structural changes, like ramps and widening doors;
  • Help with going to the bathroom (if the program helps any child with this, even if they are younger);
  • Individual attention;
  • Help a child take his or her medicine;
  • Learn how to give a shot in case of an allergic reaction;
  • Learn how to do finger prick tests to check blood sugar levels;
  • Help with eating;
  • Change activities to make them easier for the child to join in;
  • Allow a seeing-eye dog or other type of helping animal; and
  • Help putting on or taking off braces, artificial limbs, or equipment.

If a childcare program does not know how to do these things, the program must seek help from other programs or people to learn how and get help. The program must be willing to speak to your child’s doctor or health aides if this will help.

You must give the program any testing equipment, medicines, or special food that your child needs, and teach the program how to use it.

Do I have to pay for this extra help?

No. A childcare program cannot make you pay anything extra. If the program has to spend extra money because of your child’s disability, the program cannot charge you more. The only time a childcare program can ask you to pay is if your child needs to have very expensive equipment or a full-time aide that you (or an agency) have not provided. 

Will my child be put in a class with only other disabled children?

In most cases, no. The law says that childcare programs have to allow children with disabilities to be in general classrooms with children their own age and regardless of disability whenever possible. 

Are there any places that can help me with finding childcare for my special needs child?

There are several places where you may be able to get help: Early Intervention, your local school district, the Department of Developmental Disabilities (DDD), the New Jersey Inclusive Child Care project, and Legal Services of New Jersey. You also might be able to get help from a disability-specific organization (like The Association for Retarded Children [ARC] for children with developmental delays).

Early Intervention (EI)

For a child up to three years old, you can contact the Early Intervention System. Early Intervention helps families meet the needs of children from birth to age three who have delays or other kinds of physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. Early Intervention may be able to provide some of the services that your child needs, in the childcare setting or out of it. 

To get help from Early Intervention, call your county’s Special Child Health Services-Case Management Unit (SCHS-CMU). Parents or anyone else (doctors, daycare providers, family, or friends) can call the SCHS-CMU if they think a child might be eligible to get Early Intervention services. You can also call Project Child Find, 1-800-322-8174, which provides information and referral for parents of children from birth to age 21 who have disabilities. Early Intervention services can include things like testing, developing an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), one-on-one mentoring for the child, family training, family support, and parent-to-parent support. The evaluation, determination of eligibility, and IFSP must be done within 45 days from the date your child is referred to the Early Intervention system. Early Intervention services are free to families with income up to 350% of the federal poverty level (for a family of four, this would be less than $70,000 a year). 

For more information on Early Intervention, see the May 2006 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights.

Local School District

If your child is three years old or older and has special needs that affect his or her learning or development, you can contact your local school district to ask that your child be evaluated for Special Education services. The request should be made in writing and should be sent to your district’s Child Study Team. The school district must set up a meeting to which you are invited within 20 days, to decide whether your child needs an evaluation. The meeting must be in the language that you speak, if you speak a language other than English. 

If your child is eligible to receive special education and related services, the school district must meet with you to come up with a plan, called an Individual Education Program (IEP). The IEP will set out the special education program and related services that your child needs in order to receive a fair and appropriate education. The services will be provided in a classroom that meets your child’s needs. For a preschool child, this may be a public preschool program or licensed childcare program. 

You can find district phone numbers and addresses by calling 1-800-322-8174 or going to For more information on Special Education, see Your Child’s Right to Special Education.

Division of Developmental Disabilities

This agency can provide testing and services for children over age three who have learning delays. You can reach them by calling 1-800-832-9173. 

New Jersey Inclusive Child Care Project

The New Jersey Department of Human Services has a program that helps parents get childcare services for children with disabilities. It is called the New Jersey Inclusive Child Care Project (NJICCP). This project provides free information in Spanish and English about available services in New Jersey for children with special needs. It also provides free workshops for parents and childcare providers on how to include children with disabilities in childcare programs. This project also gives free telephone assistance to childcare programs on how to work with an individual child, and it also provides free on-site help and support for a limited number of childcare programs each year.

If you are having trouble getting a childcare program to accept or help your child, you might want to call this project for advice and assistance. You can reach it by calling 1-800-654-7726, extension 108. For more information, go to

Legal Services of New Jersey

For more information on your legal rights related to getting childcare for your disabled child, contact Legal Services of New Jersey by calling LSNJ-LAW™, Legal Services of New Jersey’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529) Monday through Friday between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.



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