Hidden disabilities

20th January 2012 at 00:00
From depression to dyslexia, hundreds of teachers are afraid to disclose their conditions

Disability has moved centre stage. Who, not so long ago, could have foreseen the Paralympics sharing equal billing with the Olympics, comedians with cerebral palsy holding forth in Edinburgh Fringe bearpits, or macho sportsmen baring their souls about mental illness?

Yet if the public perception of disability is one of mainstream acceptance, the private experience of it often remains in the shadows.

In schools across Scotland, hundreds of teachers are working away quietly without anyone knowing that they have a disability. Some fear that being open would harm job prospects; some do not want to be seen as getting special treatment; others have been shaken by the misinformation and scathing attitudes that mention of a disability can unleash in staffrooms.

Little research has been carried out in the UK on the issue of teachers with disabilities, so the publication of just such a report by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) is significant. The study, although modest in scale, comes as a jolt to any creeping complacency that the issue of disability has been cracked.

The report focuses on new teachers in their probation year and it is important to stress its conclusion - that, generally, experiences were positive. But nearly two-fifths of respondents rated arrangements to help with their disability as "poor" or "very poor", and it is the experiences of the less fortunate which resonate.

A teacher with a stammer reported colleagues laughing and completing sentences for her. A teacher with learning difficulties heard the head of learning support tell staff during in-school CPD that "dyslexics have a neanderthalic brain so need to be taught differently".

Most respondents focused on experiences in school, but some had issues with their university. "Too often, having a disability - especially an unseen one - is a piece of information which is confined to a filing cabinet," said one teacher. Another recalled a tutor who pontificated that people with disabilities should not be allowed to teach.

Researchers Ian Matheson and Patricia Morris, whose report will be published online later this year, stress that there is no way of corroborating such claims. But that does not diminish the clear existence of mistrust and fear that can prevent some disabled students from disclosing their disability - or make them regret having done so.

The original idea had been to carry out a largely statistical exercise, analysing the success of probationers with disabilities. But it transpired that only a very small number had disclosed a disability to the GTCS. The researchers believed it was highly probable that many teachers with disabilities had not informed the GTCS. Currently, there are 337 teachers in Scotland who have declared a disability.

The researchers sent surveys to all contactable teachers who had been probationers between 2002-03 and 2009-10. This yielded 66 responses from teachers with disabilities who had spent probation years in 28 of Scotland's 32 local authorities and studied at the various teacher- education institutions.

Only half had told the GTCS or their local authority about their disability, while just 58 per cent had informed school senior management. A third had not even told the person assigned to support them during their probation year.

Teachers with physical disabilities are more likely to disclose their conditions, and to have better experiences. One particularly effusive respondent said: "I had a fantastic experience on my placement. All staff treated me with absolute equity and I couldn't have asked for more."

That chimes with the experience of Laura Mackay (pictured), 23, who was profiled by TESS when she was a probationer at a Fife secondary in October 2010.

The history and modern studies teacher uses a wheelchair, as a result of spinal muscular atrophy which leaves her muscles very weak, and has no manual dexterity.

She recalls no bad experiences, and was delighted with the support she received: a classroom assistant, voice-recognition software and an interactive whiteboard were among the tools that helped. This year, she has had to go on supply, and things are not quite as smooth-running when she is drafted into a school at short notice.

Ms Mackay has had to think laterally to further her career - doing a one- year University of Stirling degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages - but blames the impact of the recession for the difficulties many teachers face, not her disability.

Those less likely to disclose a disability or to make complimentary observations about experiences in school, have mental health issues or learning difficulties.

Suspicion about the reasons for requesting information on disability emerged from 20 of the surveyed teachers. In many cases, teachers feared that they would not be treated fairly. One said that "it may put a potential employer off employing me".

Some teachers decided not to disclose because of the attitude of fellow members of staff. One recalled colleagues talking about disability, and that "the attitude and content of discussion were a kind of warning against what to say and to whom. So I decided to keep quiet."

A student with a hearing impairment was concerned that disclosure to her headteacher might prevent her from becoming a teacher. Another, who had a visual impairment, found that "people think of me differently when they find out about my disability".

Those who did disclose were at times dismayed by others' inability to comprehend their condition. A teacher with diabetes found that colleagues failed to understand how debilitating it could be, with some people assuming it was a disease attributable to personal lifestyle.

Similarly, a teacher with mental health difficulties recalled colleagues' lack of sympathy: "They gave the impression that I should `snap out of it' and get on with feeling good. One day, in the middle of a severe anxiety attack, I was told that I had to return to the class and get on with teaching."

Analysis in the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey notes that when a previous survey focused on discrimination, the importance of context became clear: "For example, while relatively few people expressed discriminatory views towards disabled people in other contexts, around a third felt a wheelchair user would be very or fairly unsuitable as a primary school teacher."

Student social worker Laura Carse, who has been involved in putting together new guidance for disabled teaching and social work students (see panel, below), found a similarly mixed picture while scrutinising recent disability legislation and policy.

Overall, there had been advances in how people with disabilities were perceived by the social work and teaching professions, but she stressed: "Nonetheless, pejorative social attitudes still exist and ambiguity surrounds how legislation and policies are interpreted to support disabled students throughout their training."

Respondents to the GTCS survey who had specific learning difficulties tended to be polarised in their views about disclosure. Some thought it would count against them. One said: "Many people's opinions would be that a dyslexic person would not be as good a teacher in the primary level as a non-dyslexic."

Others made firm statements about their lack of shame: one was "proud to be dyslexic" and some thought their dyslexia might even be an asset. "A child struggling with reading found it reassuring that even adults can find reading difficult," said one.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said teachers with disabilities were "likely to face the same mixed bag of responses from parents as from any other group".

Some would see a dyslexic teacher as an outstanding role model for overcoming learning difficulties; others would worry about their child's literacy and numeracy being "badly affected".

Sue Ellis, reader in literacy and language education at the University of Strathclyde, spoke to TESS last year about issues that could arise around dyslexic teachers.

Primary teachers needed a "flexible and fluent" grasp of literacy and language and had to be quick to spot "odd" spelling patterns in pupils' work, she said; P1-3 teachers, in particular, had to be able to analyse errors in children's reading and act instantly.

Careers advisers should be clear about the literacy demands of primary teaching, so people could make informed decisions about their careers, she added.

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said he understood why some teachers with disabilities might want to hide their condition. But from the employers' perspective, he stressed that the issue was one of "capability".

"It would be pretty difficult not to take someone on because of a disability alone. You would immediately run up against disability discrimination legislation; you would have to put in whatever support and adjustments were required if disability was the one and only reason for not employing them," he said.

That said, he believes people with dyslexia who teach English or primary literacy would find it "challenging" to do the job without additional support. In the current straitened financial situation, some schools might not be able to afford that support.

James Conroy, a former dean of education at the University of Glasgow, has a daughter, Jessica, who has gone on to become a teacher despite having dyslexia.

"There is not a shred of evidence to show that being taught by a dyslexic is going to adversely affect youngsters," he said.

Universities' understanding of conditions such as dyslexia has been transformed in recent times - in the 1970s there were assessments that some students with dyslexia "simply would not have been able to complete" - but public attitudes have not caught up, he added.

It was not about setting the bar lower for certain students, Professor Conroy stressed, but helping them get to the level to which every other student aims.

If students were reluctant to disclose their condition, he added, it now had more to do with distaste for special treatment than fear of prejudice.

Julie Allan, depute head of the University of Stirling's school of education, acknowledges that despite steps forward - such as the GTCS's removal in 2004 of mandatory health checks for prospective teachers - students who disclose a disability may still run up against ignorance and prejudice, particularly regarding mental illness.

Even so, Professor Allan, a specialist in disability studies, is absolutely clear that they must grit their teeth and disclose in order to get the support to make them the best teachers possible.

"Their additional support needs are not the be-all and end-all," she said. "It might actually make them better teachers."

The GTCS researchers, Dr Matheson and Mrs Morris, take a similar view: "While it is understandable that some people may choose not to disclose a disability, this may have contributed to a lack of understanding and a deficiency in support in a number of the situations described in this report."

Indeed, two teachers in the report believe that failing to disclose their disability has held back their careers.

One said: "The fact that I have never trusted the system enough to disclose my illness means that instead of now having eight years' experience and pension rights etc., I now have three.

"If I could have been more open then, I could have worked a lot more; I was certainly capable of doing so, had there been support."


New guidance has been published to "level the playing field" for disabled teaching and social work students.

It has been designed by the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) and the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) for lecturers, tutors and others working with students. It includes advice from some of the people it is ultimately designed to help, such as student social worker Laura Carse, who is visually-impaired.

"The guide is one of the first documents I have read that is jargon-free and easy to understand," she said, adding that it "really demonstrates that both the SSSC and the GTCS understand that disabled people are the real experts for providing the depth of knowledge and examples".

She was impressed, too, that it tried to "unpick the complex web of rights and responsibilities that exist at an institutional and organisational level . which a disabled student must negotiate throughout their training".

GTCS chief executive Anthony Finn said it was crucial to "ensure a level playing field which helps all teachers to reach their full potential" and that teachers with disabilities have "the same access to learning as other teachers".

The guide presents six common scenarios, which will be added to regularly.

"We'd like more real-life examples and would love to hear of more experiences that people want to share," said co-author Jess Alexander, the SSSC's education and workforce development adviser.

`Learning support for disabled social work and teaching students: a guide' can be found at http:bit.lyyduneg


Sophie Galloway, 26, is a modern languages teacher who completed her postgraduate studies at the University of Dundee in 2009, and did her induction year in 2009-10 at St John's Academy in Perth. Her declared disability is "cerebral palsy, affecting lower extremities - permanent wheelchair user".

My teacher-induction experience could not have been more positive. I was open with the local authority and the school regarding my disability. I felt welcomed wholeheartedly by all staff. There were no physical barriers to my development. I felt valued and supported, while being assessed fairly against all areas of the Standard for Full Registration, which is exactly how it should be. I was lucky enough not only to meet wonderful colleagues, but friends also.

With regards to initial teacher education, university staff did try to be supportive at all times. Being a complete novice at that time, I do think universities could have benefited from very specific training when offering practical advice to students with mobility difficulties. For example, tips on classroom layouts that would easily facilitate pupil monitoring for a wheelchair user - horseshoe, L-shape etc.

Students with disabilities should be assured that there is always a sound educational justification for "unusual" teaching methods. In my own classroom I employ no resources myself - I hand that responsibility over to my pupils, through co-operative learning techniques. Apart from the fact that I'm physically unable to dispense 30 dictionaries, I'm fostering "effective contributors" by ensuring the pupils do so.

There should be clearer guidelines between universities, partner schools and local authorities to ensure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and working purely from a practical angle and not from "perceptions", as for every teacher that a student encounters there is a personality, so undoubtedly not everyone will have had the positive experiences I had while on probation and in schools on placement.

Unfortunately, after successful completion of probation, a contract is still proving elusive, therefore I'm on supply. This isn't the greatest position for a wheelchair user to be in, as unfortunately not all schools are fully wheelchair-accessible, and I have had to turn down work. So when phone calls or alerts come in, I must admit I do dread the pregnant pause of "hang on a moment, just one more thing .". I am hoping this situation is temporary and will resolve itself soon.

My advice to students with disabilities is to go for it. Expect full support - after all, that is your right - but don't expect it to be easy, as you would never want to be known as the student for whom corners were cut. Chances are you'll be just as good as some of your able-bodied counterparts.


Depression is often described as a "hidden epidemic", with widespread public misunderstanding a major factor in the unwillingness of those with depression to reveal how they are feeling.

Public opinion about the suitability of depressed individuals to work as teachers suggests widespread unease about their capabilities - although attitudes are changing.

The most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that 41 per cent of 1,366 people thought someone who experienced depression from time to time was unsuitable to be a primary teacher, with men significantly more likely to hold that view.

But that has fallen sharply since 2006, when 51 per cent thought they should not work as primary teachers.

People who knew someone with depression were almost half as likely to think he or she should not be a primary teacher.

Certain groups are far more likely to believe a person who experiences depression from time to time is unsuitable to be a primary school teacher.

By gender

Men: 50%

Women: 32%

By age

18-24: 45%

25-34: 40%

35-44: 34%

45-54: 31%

55-64: 39%

65+: 54%

By whether person surveyed knows someone who experiences depression from time to time.

Knows someone in that group: 33%

Does not know someone in that group: 58%.

Original headline: The fear and mistrust that hold back teachers with disabilities


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