Engaging Parents with Disabilities and Learning Differences

Equitable Access and Practices

Parents with disabilities have important rights that are protected by law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities to guarantee they have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate. This includes participation in federal programs like Head Start services.

Equity promotes consistent, systemic, and equitable access to comprehensive services and systems for everyone, including:

  • People of color, including:
    • African American
    • Black
    • Latino
    • Hispanic
    • Indigenous
    • American Indian
    • Alaska Native
    • Asian American
    • Pacific Islander
  • Members of religious minorities
  • People who are LGBTQIA2S+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, or additional sexual orientations and gender identities]
  • People with disabilities
  • People who live in rural areas
  • People adversely affected by persistent poverty or other experiences of inequity

Bias, Ableism, and Disability

Many parents with disabilities have experienced ableism. Ableism is bias and discrimination against people with disabilities. This includes false attitudes that define people by their disability and see disability as a problem. Ableism results in barriers that can make it difficult for parents with disabilities to access important programs and services.

“I didn’t share that I had a disability with staff because I didn’t know how it would impact my child's access to an equal opportunity to learning. I didn't want what was going on with me to impact my child.” – Head Start parent

“I feel like there's an immediate judgement that happens when people find out you have a disability. People believe that you're less than a parent. Staff should know that while we may have a disability that makes certain things harder, we love our children. We want the best for our kids just as much as other parents, if not more, because we know what it's like to not be advocated for.” – Head Start parent

When we understand biases like ableism, we can challenge them. Self-reflection and self-awareness allow us to understand and challenge our own biases. Self-reflection can help adjust our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors toward disabled people. When we learn that a parent has a disability, we may assume there are certain things the parent is unable to do. We may assume that parents who have physical or sensory disabilities also have learning differences. By challenging those biases through self-awareness and self-reflection, we can shift our focus to learning more about the person and their disability, their strengths, needs, and preferences. We can also learn more about the accommodations they need, if any, to maximize their participation in programs.

As we strive to provide fully accessible programs and services, we are open to the many ways families may want to be engaged. When we work in partnership with families, we should remain curious and continue to learn about each family’s strengths, viewpoints, and expertise. We can also ask families how they want to be engaged. Biases may emerge in our partnerships when we hold expectations about the ways families should be engaged. Even subtle assumptions or expectations about how families engage can be rooted in bias.

Support equitable partnerships with parents with disabilities and learning differences by: 


“My Early Head Start home visitor was lovely. If she wasn’t there, I would have really struggled. She always keeps my best interests and my kids’ interests at the forefront. When she makes a home visit, instead of being so rigid with her plan, she pivots based on how I’m doing. She makes sure that I’m heard and that helps the lesson plans to be more successful with me. It is very empowering. As a stay-at-home mom, you don’t often get to be heard, but she lets me speak and validates all of these things for me. I really appreciate that.” – Head Start parent

Accessibility is a key aspect of equity. When facilities, programs, and communication are fully accessible, children and families will feel included and supported.

A smiling mother on her bed holding her child up above her.Key Practices

  • Ensure the program’s buildings and facilities are accessible, and methods of communication are appropriate for all families.
  • Modify and adapt parenting curricula and other family engagement activities as needed to include parents with disabilities and learning differences.
  • Develop community partnerships with organizations that provide access to services for parents with disabilities and learning differences.
  • Provide meaningful opportunities to learn from disabled parents and use this information in program planning.
  • Include parents with disabilities and learning differences in parent groups, Policy Council, and other family engagement activities.
  • Seek staff with disabilities in roles that support parents.

Eligibility, Recruitment, Selection, Enrollment, and Attendance

Eligibility, recruitment, selection, enrollment, and attendance (ERSEA) procedures are critical to reaching and enrolling families who can most benefit from Head Start services. By prioritizing equity in ERSEA, programs ensure services are accessible and available to everyone, including disabled parents and parents with learning differences.

Outreach and Recruitment

Head Start programs should use a systematic, inclusive, and comprehensive approach to outreach and recruitment. It is important to recruit parents as early as possible in their parenting journey to provide optimal support and care. Recruitment during pregnancy and the post-partum period is even more critical for those parents whose disabilities or learning differences affect their pregnancy experience and new parenthood.

Consider the following strategies to recruit parents with disabilities and learning differences:

  • Train staff responsible for outreach and recruitment on implicit biases that could affect their success in reaching disabled parents and parents with learning differences.
  • Develop outreach and recruitment materials that show sensitivity and respect for parents with disabilities and learning differences.
  • Develop materials tailored and accessible to parents with different disabilities, including those who are blind, deaf, or hard of hearing, or have low literacy levels.
  • Reach out to local and national organizations who support, advocate, and work alongside disabled parents to help locate parents with disabilities and learning differences who may be eligible for Head Start services.
  • Connect and build partnerships with local and national organizations to support families’ short-and long-term goals and aspirations.

Intake and Enrollment

Engagement with parents and families during the intake and enrollment process is key to building trusting relationships. As you prepare for the intake and enrollment conversation, consider the following communication strategies: 

  • This may be your first interaction with the family, so be mindful of making assumptions about their situation, circumstance, or disability. Like with all parents, it is important to find ways to complete enrollment paperwork that is respectful of their culture, language, circumstances, and individual needs and strengths.
  • The paperwork involved in the intake process can be daunting and sometimes overwhelming to any parent or family member, and likewise for some parents with a disability or learning difference.
    • Ask how they prefer to deal with paperwork. Some parents use technology for this purpose. If support is needed, consider setting up multiple meeting times to complete the necessary forms and requirements. Can you provide the paperwork in advance so the parents have ample time to read and prepare for the meeting?
    • Consider sitting alongside the parent and reading the questions aloud and recording responses to lessen the burden or reduce the stress of the process. This may be helpful for a parent with low literacy skills or who is visually impaired.
  • Continue to check in with parents as the enrollment process unfolds. Provide clear timelines for submitting necessary documentation and required paperwork.
    • If communication slows on the part of the parent, provide frequent touchpoints and offer alternative solutions to challenges they may be experiencing. Do not assume the parent is uninterested or does not want to follow through with enrollment into the program.


Regular attendance in Head Start programs is essential for children’s growth and development. It also ensures the family receives the necessary support for their well-being and long-term goals and aspirations. We also know that special circumstances arise that can create a barrier to regular attendance for the child and the parent. As you work with disabled parents and parents with learning differences to help maintain regular attendance and participation in program activities, consider the following:

  • Clearly communicate the expectations of regular attendance. This may sound simple, but for some parents, this information may require regular reminders and check-ins.
  • Recognize that transportation may be the primary difficulty for parents with physical or vision disabilities, such as traveling with children in disability paratransit. Find ways to help parents with their transportation plans.
  • Provide the daily school schedule in multiple ways. For example, some parents may benefit from a visual calendar while others may receive and understand the expectations verbally. Ask about their own schedule and find ways to help connect their daily routine to child drop-off and pick-up or bus arrival times. Having caring conversations about barriers in advance could help mitigate issues later in the program year.
  • Be mindful when regular programming and home visiting is interrupted, be it unexpected or planned. This may require extra planning and communication to ensure parents understand the schedule change. This is also when a visual calendar may be helpful, to mark off the days when school or home visiting is not in session.