Better World

This is how the child care crisis hits kids with special needs extra hard

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Finding quality, affordable child care has always been challenging for parents, but the situation has become more dire in recent years. The current child care crisis stems from stagnant wages for childcare workers, as well as pandemic-related closures and staff shortages. 

During the pandemic, about 10 percent of all child care workers left the industry, and nearly 16,000 child care centers closed. As a result, there are simply not enough child care providers out there to match up to families’ needs.

Another troubling reality is that families with disabled children are even more likely to experience difficulty finding care — or be unable to find it altogether — than those whose children don’t have special needs. 

Before the pandemic hit, more than half of Americans already lived in so-called “child care deserts,” places where the number of children under 5 far surpasses the available child care options. When your child has a disability, finding child care in these areas becomes even more difficult as the number of high-quality educators who have experience with disabilities is much harder to find.  

For Meagan Quigley of Illinois, whose son has autism and epilepsy, finding daily child care so that she can work and pay the bills is a huge struggle. Even when she can find quality care, those providers often don’t stick around for long, which causes more stress for both of them. “Any lack of consistency in his routine causes more meltdowns, more challenges with regulating his emotions [and] more challenges with him even attending school,” she explained to Illinois Public Media.

An analysis from the Center for American Progress showed that parents of young children with disabilities are also three times more likely to experience job disruptions because of issues with child care. 

Part of the problem are policies and at times, physical barriers, that keep children with disabilities from being able to participate in some activities. Each time that happens, parents are thrown into a tailspin search for alternate care, which can impact their job.

This in turn affects parents’ desire — or ability — to apply for promotions or pursue other methods of advancement and education, leaving them feeling frustrated or stuck in unfulfilling positions. 

Needing to leave work or scale back hours because of a lack of quality child care can also impact a family’s finances at a time when they’re already struggling to shoulder the high costs associated with having a child with disabilities, all of which is magnified during tough economic times. As a result many parents report greater financial strain, more frequent health issues, and a general increase in stress.

Researchers have pointed to “years of chronic underinvestment” for the dearth of quality child care crisis, adding that federal funding for child care has remained largely stagnant for over 15 years.

By shining a spotlight on how much more complex the child care crisis is for families with children with disabilities, researchers are calling on policymakers to do more to implement practices and policies that ensure quality care is really accessible to all. Progressive, flexible work-family policies, they say, would also help all working parents better balance the child care conundrum.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.