Three years and three months ago, as I sat listening to the calming tones of hypnobirthing muzac in the garden suite at St Thomas’s Hospital, overlooking The Houses of Parliament, I never imagined that the baby I was about to give birth to would end up taking me to within the Palace walls.
Had I listened to the universe that day there were hints along the way that the little person making his way into the world would be important not just to us but on a greater scale. A (frankly odd and unexpected) hint of politics was thrown in to my stultifying hours in the labour ward and my soothing muzac was interrupted, momentarily, by the arrival of the Under Secretary of State for Health having a tour of the ‘superior facilities’… After she had asked if I was still alive as I sprawled myself in the only position that was comfortable across a faux fur birthing ball and into a bed full of plastic palm trees, I politely declined the suggested photo opportunity 😉
And of course 8 March 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, also known in some circles as International Working Women’s Day, which at the time I had no idea would prove to be so pertinent. As friends marched below across Westminster Bridge and beyond, on that crisp, sunny Spring day, representing women’s continued pursuit of equality, I knew nothing of what was to come, and how this baby of mine would alter my world view and throw me into an interest in politics I never knew I had.
As you will know, I have been involved for a few months now in raising awareness of the issues faced by working parents, particularly mothers, of children who have disabilities. Last month, a Parliamentary Inquiry into childcare for disabled children, which facilitates parents to work, was launched, and it was with huge pride that I stepped forward as one of a small selection of working mothers of disabled children to speak at the Parliamentary Inquiry hearing, giving evidence to the group of MPs who are taking the Inquiry forward.
I, along with my compatriots at Premmeditations, Rosy & Bo, Mama Lewis and ABA4All, had a unique opportunity to share our, often challenging, experiences of securing childcare for our complicated children, with a view to influencing future policy and clearing an easier path for those who may follow in our footsteps. It was an honour and a privilege to do so and proved to be an intense, emotional and deeply worthwhile experience.
As a small group of women speaking to represent many thousands of our kind, while our personalities, lifestyles, children and careers are all rich in their variety, our experiences shadowed one another with eerie repetition.
Universally, we have struggled to secure adequate childcare for our children. Judged by those who are publicly employed to provide support for families like us, we have been told variously that it is ‘frivolous and selfish to return to work’, that ‘mothers of children like ours don’t work’, that the funding which has been perilously patched in to allow our children to access limited childcare with much-needed 1-2-1 support ‘could be pulled at any time’ and ‘can never be guaranteed for any longer than eight weeks’.
As we explained to the MPs, currently, there is no statutory requirement on childcare providers to take disabled children. As a reflection of that, the majority of childcare providers simply aren’t set up to cater for much beyond the most mainstream of needs. And those rare diamonds in the dust that do exist will tell you that securing funding for children who need specialist input and 1-2-1 support to enable them to be safe and included in a childcare setting is one hell of a crusade.
Until recently, we have relied 100 per cent upon my mum to provide childcare for Orange to enable us both to work. Being entirely upfront, this has been no small issue for our family. If we had stayed in London, we would have been unable to find any childcare with funded 1-2-1 support and a specialist nanny being well beyond our means meant it was impossible for me to return to work. Had we not acted quickly, sold our home and left the city it is almost certain we would have eventually lost our home. With work a closed door to me and now on one income, the finances simply didn’t add up.
We were lucky in that we were able to make the absolute best of a very difficult situation, relocating all the way across the country with mum who could help support us and facilitate my return to work. I will admit this has been a glistening silver lining to our sombre cloud, since Cornwall in all its beauty has brought us a sublime quality of life and our compact and unusual extended family unit is a very happy one.
But many families who wear our brand of shoes have not been in favoured situations like ours. They have lost their homes. They have lost their careers. They have sacrificed their mental wellbeing and more, and face a future more dependent upon the State than they ever imagined. All too often, this is for the simple reason that they could not access adequate childcare for their disabled children. It simply wasn’t there. It is for these families that we speak.
The testimonies we shared at the Inquiry hearing weighed heavy with tales of anguish, determination, fear and frustration. Spurred on by financial imperative and cerebral calling to continue with our careers, even the most searing tenacity to find stimulating, safe, sunny and suitable early years care for our children has not overcome the recurring issues we face of transparency over funding, poor communication from local authorities and equality of access to childcare.
I am not alone in having been able to secure just six hours a week term-time 1-2-1 support for my child. He cannot attend a childcare setting without this support. At age three, he is legally entitled to access 15 hours a week of early years education in a childcare setting however he is prevented from doing so because the Local Authority has only secured six hours of 1-2-1 support.
And should we need more than 15 hours a week? To enable us to do a job part or even full time? Without the considerable financial means to fund both daycare fees and the hourly rate of a trained 1-2-1 carer, which would render most jobs economically unviable, there is currently no solution to this puzzle.
There seems to be no clear, accessible, ring-fenced funding within Local Authority budgets to pay for 1-2-1 support. If there is, we, and many others, have certainly not been told about it. As a parent, it appears that Local Authorities are clawing randomly from pots of money here and there to cobble together some semblance of minimal funding but there is no transparency over what exactly our children are entitled to, or how to access it.
In addition, no-one seems to be want to answer the question over why our children are all too often denied access to the full 15 hours a week of preschool education that they are statutorily entitled to, because 1-2-1 funding to match that simply isn’t there.
And beyond funding and Local Authority bureaucracy, there are societal and attitudinal issues at play. Our testimonies at the Inquiry exposed stories of endless attempts to find childcare places for our children, to be told ‘we can’t cater for children like yours’, ‘we’d love to have him but our insurance won’t cover us’, ‘our staff won’t cope’ or ‘we’ll put you on the waiting list’ (the never-ending waiting list of one…guess who?).
Frankly, it seems from the testimonies delivered to the Inquiry last week that the world is often afraid of our children and so it pushes them away. Finds reason to exclude rather than include. In our part of the world, we have not found this to be such an issue but in the society we left behind in London and the South East, exclusion is a way of life. One parent enquired with dozens upon dozens of nurseries to find a place for her daughter only to be told ‘no, we cannot cater for your child’s needs’. No parent, in the face of a looming financial necessity to return to work, should have to face that.
As parents, we have all had to adapt to cater for our children in ways we could never have anticipated. We were not experts in disability when our children were born. We had no experience of epilepsy care, tube feeding, daily physio for hypotonic bodies, Makaton or appropriate play for the visually impaired. We learnt on the job. We skilled up. Because we had to.
So it stands to reason, as we shared with the MPs, that there is no grounds for childcare providers to deny they can do the same. But they must be granted support in order to be able to do so. After all, they have businesses to run and many of them run an already very tight ship. Our children are, admittedly, expensive. So what’s the answer?
Placing a statutory requirement upon childcare providers to accommodate disability will only work if the funding is made available to support them. Funding to make their premises accessible, funding to train their staff in accommodating additional needs and funding to provide 1-2-1 support for the children who need it. My view is that this funding needs to be ring-fenced at a national level, or we shall face an increasingly unbalanced postcode lottery in service delivery.
But why? Why, when the austerity belt is still squeezing us tight should we be throwing money at something so seemingly niche? Surely we should just accept our lot and suck it up, right?
For a moment, I will put aside my passion about my right to work, and I will give you this. If I work, I am economically active. I am contributing to society. I am paying tax and delivering valuable communications support to businesses to help them grow. I am a professional and an expert in my field. In the business world, I have value to add.
Beyond that, I am a homeowner. An independent purchaser of things, payer of VAT and customer of businesses. I have no need for social housing or support from the welfare system. It pays for society to have people like me in work.
And for Orange? With just the limited six hours a week of preschool that he does get, he is coming on leaps and bounds. His 1-2-1 and nursery team work tirelessly and lovingly to include him in activities, enable him to communicate, teach him to feed himself and move his body. They have the time and the energy to facilitate his development in a way I can only ever limply shadow. The more input he gets now, the greater his chances are of being able to walk, talk and function in society as an adult. The more independence he can gain for his future, the lesser financial burden he will be upon the State.
It is simple economics.
But I shall also leave you with this. I echo Mama Lewis’s words at the Inquiry hearing when I say that the other children at nursery adore Orange. They inquire sweetly as to his differences and then unquestioningly rest them aside and include him in their play. The staff can’t get enough of his cuddles and his infectious laughter. They love caring for him. I know I am not being presumptuous when I say that children like ours bring light and joy to those that surround them. Adults and children alike learn that those who are seemingly less able than themselves contribute to the group in softer, less obvious ways and that the group is a richer, happier mix for their inclusion.
Mama Lewis asked the Inquiry ‘Are these not the values we want to instil in the next generation?’ The values that will be the building blocks of a society that genuinely cares for those who are vulnerable.
There is a slowly dawning realisation that inclusion is actually good for everybody. But this dawning is fragile and at risk of being swept aside by national and local policies that appears hell-bent on whipping the carpet away from under the feet of those in need.
And so I will continue my involvement with the Inquiry as it proceeds, playing my own small part in working towards a future that is one step ahead of our own.
Thank you to all the articulate and brilliant women who stood together in giving evidence to the Inquiry. We made a formidable team…
Here’s a great little illustration of why we did what we did: #wework