Wakefield mum on a mission to change the way people view disability
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When her son,Tommy, was born in 2010, she didn’t know at the time that her parenting journey may not be as straightforward as she had hoped, and that those same qualifications in special education needs and disability would hold such value to her own family.
Rachel, who founded Hillside Childcare back in 2007, said: “From being 18 I had worked within childcare, mainly in leadership roles, but it wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I felt motivated to support others, especially those who have children with special needs and disabilities, as that was the new reality I was living within my own home too.”
On realising her son Tommy wasn’t meeting his movement milestones as a baby, Rachel and her family began their journey.
After many appointments, tests and assessments, there were no diagnoses and they were told that Tommy had developmental delay of his gross motor skills, not knowing what the future would hold, together they moved forward and took life a day at a time.
Tommy is now 14 and uses a walking frame or a wheelchair.
Rachel said: “I think as a mum you know when something doesn’t feel quite right, it’s that magic mothers instinct you hear so much about, and whilst other children Tommy’s age were starting to achieve certain milestones, especially in movement, we were told to wait until he was 12-18 months before anything could be determined for sure.
"Plus from a system perspective, nothing can be decided until then either.
“But between the time he was 18 months and three-years-old, and once we were given a diagnosis, I was initially really upset and protective of him. There were some days where I could’ve wrapped him up and run away, other days where I felt like superwoman, and others where I didn’t. It was a rollercoaster, but actually, these are all normal emotions as parents and I had to become stronger for me and him.”
Alongside caring for her family, Rachel was building a successful daycare business that had four thriving settings and 74 members of staff.
Juggling her business, providing support to children and their families, and managing household responsibilities, Rachel realised the importance of regaining control over her and Tommy’s daily routine.
This realisation prompted her to establish a Facebook page ‘Rock on Tommy’ aimed at normalising their everyday life.
Rachel said; “It was when he was due to start nursery school I felt like I needed some control of the situation and his disability, and without being outfaced by lots of questions from other parents and even other children on the first day of school,
"I decided to share more online about our experiences and the things he was doing. It became a little diary, where we shared family days and special moments together, as well as some of the not-so-fun moments when wheelchair-friendly access actually means no access at all.
“In return, we gained comfort from the motivation and response we received from friends, family and even strangers from around the world, but it was the community of other parents in a similar situation that really made us feel the most relatable of all.
"It filled me and my husband with so much hope and contentment that without realising we had built our very own community, and in a quick space of time, had thousands’ following the page too.”
The latest estimates from the Department for Work and Pensions indicate that 16.0million people in the UK had a disability in the 2021/22 financial year. This represents 24 per cent of the total population, with 11 per cent being children.
And whilst Rachel was her own boss and not personally subject to discrimination within the workplace, she was in contact with mothers who were.
Through the ‘Rock on Tommy’ platform and the work she was doing online with their Facebook community, Rachel’s perspective shifted when it came to business, and ultimately the type of work she wanted to put her energy into.
In early 2023, after 16 years of outstanding success, Rachel stepped away from her childcare business’s and took some much-needed time out before taking on her new chapter; raising awareness for families in the UK who have children with disabilities and special needs.
By combining both her career pathway and her home life, Rachel is now using ‘her calling’ to campaign across the UK to ensure that Tommy, and others like him, are seen and heard.
She said: “Tommy still motivates me every single day. I know that if he can do that to me, he can do it for others too.
“I started my childcare business scared and with only two children on my books, and yes it was a lot of hard work – just like this will be - but we made it a success. I know now that this is my calling to combine my years of experience to support other children and offer online learning and a voice to families who look a lot like ours.
"It’s obvious now that the work I’ve done over two decades has been leading up to this, I just didn’t know it when I was 18 and stepping into a childcare environment for the very first time.”
There has previously been little reliable data on the childcare accessed by disabled infants, but Rachel hopes that static will change once she really gets to work.
In 2024 Rachel, alongside her family and of course son Tommy, hopes to support families who may feel lost in a system, and at times, a world that isn’t always ready for them.