Child care is hard to find for children with disabilities

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I thought I had finally found a child care provider to enroll my son in their after-school care program, but as soon as I mentioned that my son is on the autism spectrum, her face changed to a concerned expression. “Oh, we’re not sure we can take him,” she said. “We’re really not equipped to care for children with special needs.”

As heartbreaking as this situation was to me personally, it’s not uncommon. All over America, parents of children living with disabilities are struggling to find, obtain and keep child-care services so that they can work or get respite. A report by the Maryland Developmental Disability Council found that 64% of parents have lost income due to lack of child-care options, and 32% have had to quit their jobs to stay home and take care of their children. 

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that developmental disabilities affect one in seven children in the United States, which equates to a national average of 15% of American children. In Texas, there are approximately 454,821 students enrolled in special education. 

Thousands of children in Texas are living with disabilities and special needs, and it is critical that they receive quality care that meets their unique needs. The research indicates that all children benefit from inclusive child-care settings, but few opportunities are available in most communities. Even when child care is available, a lack of training often means that families struggle to teach providers how to understand and accommodate their children’s developmental needs.

Though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed into law 30 years ago and is meant to protect those with disabilities against discrimination, parents and advocates continue to report problems with child care and after-school care providers with issues like lack of access, quality care, accommodations and discrimination against children with disabilities.

Federal law mandates that both publicly and privately owned child-care centers must evaluate and accommodate each child based on individual need. However, many providers often do not assess the need for accommodations, and will often reject a child before enrollment, or allow them to enroll and then kick them out of the program shortly after, due to challenges or behaviors related to their disability. Some providers also feel that taking care of a child with a disability is too much of a liability issue for them, and make excuses and refuse to allow the child to be enrolled.

Parents and families have also reported that providers would not accommodate children with any type of physical or medical need, or who was not toilet-trained, sometimes saying they did not have enough staff to assist those children. Several have been denied care for children with hearing impairments, developmental disabilities, physical disabilities and those who are considered medically fragile. This leaves parents who do not have any other type of support with few options other than suing the child-care facility, which can be costly and time-consuming. 

While some child care providers will accept children with disabilities into their programs, many do not have adequate training on caring for children with disabilities, and don’t know how to provide quality care or accommodate them. A study completed by Jenna Weglarz-Ward found that child-care providers often lack the training to serve children with disabilities, and some admitted that they were not comfortable caring for a child with special needs because they did not know enough about disabilities. Although child-care providers must undergo annual training to meet licensing requirements, they are not required to receive specific training on caring for children with disabilities.

It is imperative that child-care providers are trained to care for children with disabilities, and that families have access to care. The Texas Legislature is considering two critical bills helping with these issues: House Bill 2883 by Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, and Senate Bill 1744, by Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. Both prohibit discrimination based on race and disability in a child-care setting and will also ensure that licensed child-care providers are trained on disabilities so that they can provide safe, quality care. 

Bianca Ramirez

Licensed master social worker