Children with disabilities need more educational support, not mockery – Lola Okolosie

Lawyer with brief
‘The narrative around state help being a luxury only the lazy believe they should have access to has become embedded. So much so that specialist lawyers can now publicly mock parents looking to help their vulnerable children.’ 

“Crikey, had a great ‘win’ last week which sent some parents into a storm! It is always a great win when the other side thinks they won!” So went a tweet from the law firm Baker Small that would cause enough anger and consternation to make this most flippant of messages national news.

The “losers” being ridiculed here were the parents of children with disabilities trying to secure adequate support for their child’s education. Baker Small specialises in contesting these cases. The existing narrative around state help being a luxury only the lazy believe they should have access to has, we know, become embedded. So much so that the likes of Baker Small can now publicly mock parents looking to help their vulnerable children.

No one likes a gloater, least of all one who seems happy to bask in other’s misery, so to be clear, Baker Small’s tweets were reprehensible and the firm deserves all the opprobrium that comes its way. Yet such disgraceful behaviour is only permissible within the context of slashed council funds and stretched budgets. The disability charity Scope reports that in a survey of 1,500 parents, 69% had problems accessing local services for their child.

Often when words like “services” and “support” are used in this context, they serve only to make more opaque what we are actually talking about. Councils may “support” a family by funding an after-school club once a week or six days across the summer holidays. This level of provision is supposed to be enough for parents with children considered to have severe disabilities.

Again we have opacity here. “Severe” can mean an incontinent 14-year-old who is unable to dress themselves or indeed complete the most basic of tasks without a parent’s assistance. Their severe learning disability may mean that they are non-verbal and that communication, even for parents who have devised ways to decipher their child’s utterances, is difficult. Frustration might lead the teenager to lash out: hitting or biting parents or siblings, harming themselves by banging their heads repeatedly against a wall. For some families the above might be a feature of daily life – one they must get through on a few hours’ sleep because their 14-year-old has retained the sleeping habits of a newborn.

Amanda Batten, chief executive of Contact a Family, a charity supporting the parents of disabled children, notes that many of the families they support are “finding it harder to access vital services such as speech and language therapy and short breaks … Cutting services for disabled children is a false economy. We know that when disabled children get the right support they thrive.” We also know that when parents reach their absolute breaking point then local authorities have no other choice than to place children with severe needs into specialist residential schools, costing in excess of £120,000 a year. It is – as with benefit cuts that have thrown half a million children into absolute poverty – short-sighted.

We must not forget that these are children whose parents no doubt love them unconditionally but have been pushed to breaking point. While a child’s disability is not what defines them, society makes it so by failing to provide them and their families with essential services that will enable them to live their lives more independently.

It is staggering that we should treat such children and their families with this level of disdain. That many soldier on in silence isn’t a sign that there isn’t a problem but rather the reverse. Of the 47% of parents who had been to see their GP in Scope’s research, 57% were prescribed antidepressants. Our society continues to make disability a burden, a source of guilt and personal shame.

This government has instituted the biggest reforms to special educational needs and disability legislation in 30 years. It has also strengthened the right of carers, all of which admittedly appears progressive. But in the context of cuts, we know that this is far from the case.

Instituting legislative change within such a framework and doing so without ensuring that councils ring-fence funding for vulnerable groups, serves only to pit strained councils against exhausted parents. This only enables our government to deflect blame so that families with legitimate requests can be made to feel guilt and humiliation for their inability to cope. The loser? The child whose health and development are harmed as a result.