But this week, a small chink of light appeared in the form of a Parliamentary Inquiry into the provision and cost of childcare for disabled children.
Much has been said about childcare in political circles, of late. From the new tax-free childcare scheme announced by the government last year to the escalating cost of childcare heralding a huge rise in 'mumpreneurs' (I'm not the only one who's a bit 'hmmm' about that word I suspect...), childcare has featured heavily in the political and news agenda. But most of the powwow has slipstreamed fast over my head because, when it comes to childcare provision for Orange, we are still yet to pass 'Go'.
With Beep we trod a mainstream path and it was, comparatively, an easy ride. We found a local childminder we liked and could afford, booked her in, and that was that. In the blink of an eye her needs were catered for and I settled back into the routine of work, knowing that she was safe and happy. When my consultancy work took off and my hours became long, we found a wonderful nanny who we shared with another family, and our girls spent their toddler days like little sisters, doing each others hair and squabbling over who played with the pink buggy, running about in the park, being grumpy at playgroup and heading up to town like mini city-sophisticates for days out.
At three, Beep started in the local pre-school, no question over whether it was 'suitable' or 'met her needs'. It just was, and it did. And now she's in school, she's slotted neatly into after-school and holiday care with a brilliant childminder in the village. We have been able to find good quality childcare for Beep wherever we have lived, city, suburbs and seaside village. It has come at a cost, but it's available. There are options.
For Orange, it's not been as simple. The reality has been that, until now, we haven't been able to find a single childcare setting that could meet his needs. Not in any of the three postcodes we've inhabited since his birth.
Orange is an easygoing, placid little boy. He is social and he positively shines in the company of others. He loves nothing more than being around other little children. He will smile, reach out for them and chat to engage their attention in a way he just doesn't with adults. He knows he is one of them.
More than anything I know how much he would benefit developmentally from being around other small children on a daily basis and taking part in organised play in a way that simply doesn't happen at home. Attending nursery or pre-school is more important for Orange that it was for Beep, I'd say. Quite apart from the fact that we need childcare to enable us to work, nursery is an essential learning experience for a child with developmental difficulties. And yet, here we are, at age three, and yet to experience that first day of nursery.
A year ago, I started enquiring about pre-school for Orange. Looking round places, talking to his Portage worker, researching online and chatting to other parents. But most of what we saw simply couldn't meet his needs. The same obstacles kept presenting themselves. Step access. Echo-ey, noisy acoustics. No 'safe zone' for little ones with no mobility. 'Free-play' ethos which is basically just a bunch of loud kids running about in a room... Staff without the skill or time to spoon-feed a little boy who can't chew. And who I would feel confident handing him over to, knowing that he could have a seizure and stop breathing while he's there...
Finding a setting that he could a) get in to and around in a wheelchair and b) would allow him to flourish once he was in the door, while keeping him safe, was quite the challenge.
A few months ago we eventually settled on a nursery in a nearby village, that has a staff with plenty of experience and knowledge of additional needs, a layout and set-up suitable for a child who has little independent mobility and no awareness of when he's about to be trampled on by bouncing, bounding children, and an ethos that promotes thoughtful, creative, floor-based learning. Orange, as good a judge of character as he is, was instantly happy in the manager's company and I felt confident, on very first meeting her, that she and her team could provide a safe and happy environment for him, where he would thrive. And not be trampled on by rampaging toddlers.
I wanted to book him in immediately. Throw him right in there, into the mix of little tots he was craning his head to see and shouting 'eeeeeyyyooo' to excitedly as we looked around. I would happily have handed him over then and there.
But there were hurdles to be scaled. Rather large ones, that we are still overcoming.
Orange needs constant 1-2-1 care at nursery to be safe and to be able to join in with activities. He needs physical help to move around, play and eat. And of course there's the huge Orange elephant in the room in that he has a history of seizures that cause him to stop breathing.
Catering for Orange's needs just isn't covered under the standard terms of what a typical childcare setting offers. I'm sure that in there somewhere there's a discrimination case waiting to be mounted, but the law as it stands just doesn't protect or enable disabled children and their families and so childcare settings are not obliged to provide for children who don't fit the norm.
Paying for a 1-2-1- carer full-time, on top of nursery fees, is simply beyond the means of 99% of families and so funding has to be sought. Our team at the Local Authority have been supportive with making this happen for us but, even so, have only been able to secure six hours of funding. During term-times only.
Six hours. Thirty-nine weeks a year. And that's it.
While I am over the moon that Orange will be starting at nursery soon, there's a crucial missing link here in that childcare is not solely for the benefit of the child but also to allow the parents to work. To keep a roof over their heads and contribute economically. And six hours a week simply isn't enough. Six hours a day is barely enough.
We have had to, and will continue to have to, rely on help from family to fill the gap that childcare should be filling. I am only able to work when we have family help to enable this and I am incredibly lucky that my line of work means I can work so flexibly. Albeit, it is a gargantuan juggling act. And it puts enormous pressure on our wider family unit because we have to be completely self-sufficient, knowing that adequate outside help simply isn't available.
And what I absolutely cannot understand, is how we got to this place where over 600,000 parents of disabled children say they have been unable to return to work (84% of mothers of the 800,000 disabled children in the UK have not returned to work). The system simply doesn't cater for them.
Of course, you may argue that our circumstances are unusual. So far aside from the norm that we couldn't possibly expect mainstream childcare to cater for our needs. That it's just bad luck and we should suck it up. But that would be a backward way of looking at it. You see it is not us, or indeed our children, that marks us out as 'other'. After all, we are consultants, teachers, buyers, artists, accountants, office managers, hair stylists, corporate fund raisers, army officers, tax payers, contributors to society. We have financial commitments that must be met (and some...) just like other families. We have hopes, dreams and desires, just like other families. We have careers hard fought for, just like other families.
But what ultimately stands us apart, and allows us all to often to fall into a black hole of isolation and financial vissitude is that we are denied the opportunity to return to our jobs and careers, because the support systems that enable parents to work are strikingly absent for children whose needs are more complicated.
The conversation about enabling parents of disabled children to work began not so long ago here and I wrote what I'll admit was quite an angry blog post about the issue back in March when we were mid-flow trying to secure a nursery place for Orange. And so I welcome with open arms this Parliamentary Inquiry into childcare for children with disabilities. It is so desperately long overdue.
And to other parents who have faced similar issues in finding childcare for their disabled child, I would say this. Get involved. This is our chance to step into the spotlight and let our needs and views be known. Whether you have lost your career because childcare didn't work for your child, lost your home because the finances didn't add up with just one parent working, or are hanging on to the bare bones of a job by your back teeth but would like to be able to work more without relying on relatives to help, share your views.
The inquiry is seeking evidence from families, professionals and 'a range of stakeholders' (whatever that means) during May and June:
- Written evidence can be sent for inclusion in the enquiry to email@example.com until Monday 9 June 2014. This is a chance to share your experiences with a willing and influential audience. To ensure families with disabled children don't continue to fall down the gaps left by an inadequate childcare system.
- Families can also respond to this survey, which is gathering evidence to submit to the enquiry.
- The inquiry is holding four oral evidence sessions during June. These will be chaired by Robert Buckland MP and Pat Glass MP. Write to them. Share your story. You might also want to consider writing to your local MP with reference to the inquiry. Belt and braces, so to speak.
We have a limited window in which to act and share our experiences to ensure that future childcare policy takes the needs of our children into account. We are under the spotlight. For perhaps the first time ever. There is a glimmer of hope but it needs us to facilitate real change.