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History of SpeciaLink

Officially begun in 1990, SpeciaLink has built a solid base in the Canadian child care community. It has established a consensus among child care practitioners that 1) the mainstream is the right stream, and 2) mainstream child care must be inclusive, affordable, accessible, and comprehensive. SpeciaLink has defined and tested a set of principles for full mainstream child care, and created a network of committed mainstream practitioners. Its video and print resources have raised public awareness of mainstream issues. It has presented at over 200 workshops and conferences, in all provinces, on issues related to inclusion. 250 advocates from the national SpeciaLink Symposium carried the mainstream message into their workplaces and communities, and the SpeciaLink Search Conference brought together 50 key people from related fields to search for common ground on mainstreaming.

SpeciaLink Expansion

In 1994, SpeciaLink expanded its program, offering e-mail and an 800 access number for referrals and resources; a new initiative to identify, test and promote innovative practices in children's mental health within child care settings; and a further collaboration with related occupations to better address the child care needs of children with special needs and their families.

We are now known as the National Centre for Child Care Inclusion, a title that reflects the complexity of jobs SpeciaLink has taken on. In addition to research, workshops, conferences, networking, individual consultations, student training and maintaining the toll-free phone line, e-mail, and our website, SpeciaLink has developed an extraordinary program in partnership with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) devoted to families with children who have special needs. The program delivers consultative services, member-to-member information including the Member-to-Member Connection newsletter, and individualized assistance. Our research has revealed needs, exposed serious work-and-family issues facing those parenting children with special needs, and is helping to make a real difference in the lives of more than 290 children who have special needs.

At the same time, SpeciaLink has been publishing books. Many of the topics that would have been articles in the SpeciaLink Newsletter have been fully developed into five books: The SpeciaLink Book, Charting New Waters in Early Intervention, Integration of Children with Disabilities into Daycare and After school Care Programs, In Our Way: Child Care Barriers to Full Workforce Participation Experienced by Parents of Children with Special Needs, and A Matter of Urgency: Including Children with Special Needs in Child Care in Canada. These books, along with the SpeciaLink video, The Mainstream is the Right Stream, have become essential teaching materials in child care and school settings, as well as valuable aids to people involved in policy development and child care planning across Canada. Current research includes a comparative study of two models of inclusive child care in four provinces in Canada as well as on-going consideration of work/family issues in families that include a child with a special need.

Recent research

Our Measuring Inclusion Progress project, funded by Social Development Canada, helped us to develop, refine and test ways of "Measuring Inclusion Progress" in child care centres. Research was used to produce tools and training packages for practitioners, trainers, advocates and parents for use at workshops or self-training on-line, to help to create a common knowledge base for inclusion on Early Childhood Learning & Care (ECLC) service provision across Canada.

This project helped child care centres to include children with special needs, builds pan-Canadian networks and alliances within the ECLC sector, and provided useful information to researchers, trainers, disability advocates, students, support agencies, and all levels of governments. By 2007 over 2000 individuals had taken part in our training which ranged from conference workshops, presentations to classes, insertion in text books used in ECE training programs, two day training seminars and full week university courses. Across Canada, all these groups are helping us to ‘test’ out the effectiveness of these tools and their role in helping us to understand inclusion quality. We welcome you to be a part of this action research project as it unfolds across Canada.

We completed The SpeciaLink Child Care Inclusion Practices Profile and the SpeciaLink Child Care Inclusion Principles Scale. These tools were uniquely positioned for use in monitoring child care inclusion. We reshaped them into ECERS-R-like formats, adding a total of 247 indicators. Beta versions of the Principles and Practices were made available on line and through dozens of workshops between 2005-2007. Over 2000 people participated in our training.

We also completed An Evaluation Based on the First Cohort of Child Care Centres
This evaluation report described the initial offering of an innovative approach, Partnerships for Inclusion - Nova Scotia (PFI-NS) that combines assessment, on-site consultation, and the provision of resources and personal support to directors and lead educators (head teachers) in preschool rooms in licensed child care centres.


In 2007 the Canadian Council on Learning funded our Assessing inclusion quality in early childhood learning and child care (ELCC) in Canada with the SpeciaLink Child Care Inclusion Practices and Principles Scales . The overall purpose of project is to complete the development of a statistically sound, valid, reliable, user-friendly and well-accepted assessment tool for assessing inclusion quality in early childhood learning and child care settings.

In 2007 we saw a major leadership change when after 17 years leading the organization she founded, Dr. Sharon Hope Irwin moved into the role of Senior Researcher for SpeciaLink. Debra Mayer assumed the role as Director of SpeciaLink as the organization completed its transition to its new home at the University of Winnipeg in downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba. Most recently, Debra served as SpeciaLink’s Project Manager, a role she filled while being mentored by Sharon, co-facilitating training in many parts of the country, and helping to promote the Practices and Principles.

SpeciaLink's commitment continues. Our fundamental goal is to bring Canadian child care closer to the reality of full inclusion by locating or developing and then sharing innovative strategies and tools that work with the field, with families, and with governments.ø


Dr. Sharon Hope Irwin, a longtime champion for child care and the inclusion of children with special needs will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Winnipeg, June 1.

Commencement Speech
University of Winnipeg, June 1, 2008
Sharon Hope Irwin

These four have devoted themselves to community service
Winnipeg Free Press - May 31, 2008
The University of Winnipeg celebrated four remarkable lifetimes with honorary degrees at today's spring convocation -- decade after decade of service and caring in the community, to child care, health care, and philanthropy.

SpeciaLink: The National Centre for Child Care Inclusion
76 Cottage Road,
Sydney, NS  B1P 2C7
Phone (902) 562-1662
FAX (902) 539-9117
Contact us by email

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