Teaching seemed an obvious choice to Judy Watson, deputy head, and head of English at Stanchester Community School near Yeovil, Somerset. She loved her subject and liked young people, so the minute she finished her degree she applied to do a PGCE. Strangely, the first eight colleges she approached didn't even acknowledge her application.
She was beginning to despair when, out of the blue, came an offer from Christchurch College in Canterbury, to which she hadn't even applied. "It was the first of my lucky breaks," she says. "I don't even know how my forms got sent there."
In fact, teaching was a brave choice for Mrs Watson, as she is blind. But she was determined and has remained so. "It is all about self-belief," she explains. "When you are disabled, people make snap judgments about your capabilities, but you have to reject them and go with your instincts. You need unshakeable faith in your own ability - and some luck, because, as well as prejudiced people, there are open-minded, adventurous risk-takers out there, who'll say: "Have a go!" No-one knows the number of disabled teachers in the United Kingdom because, unless disabilities are obvious, they tend to be kept hidden to avoid discrimination.
A National Union of Teachers equality officer says: "Many teachers would rather struggle along than admit they need support, even though they have a right to help under the Disability Discrimination Act, 1995. But we do know disabled people are under-represented in teaching.
"One person in six becomes disabled at some point in life, so it is educationally valuable for children to see disabled teachers as part of everyday life. That's why we always say 'yes' to disabled students who want to teach, although we don't pretend they won't meet many barriers."
To this end, the union has brought out a "Tool Bag" for disabled members.The pack includes information on the legal position, the "reasonable adjustments" governing bodies and local education authorities might have to make, the Access to Work scheme and much more.
The Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation also has two useful guides - So You Want to Be a Teacher and Into Work. RADAR's Nick Goss says:
"When disabled people go for job interviews, questions may be raised about their disability, so they need to have their answers ready."
When Judy Watson started teaching in 1974, she had to rely on members of her local church to read things aloud to her. Now, through the Access to Work scheme, she has a support worker who can convert documents into Braille on a computer, do her photocopying and share bus and break duty. And her husband, Matthew, helps with marking.
"But I've never needed anyone with me in the classroom, apart from my guide dog. The idea that a sighted teacher is better at maintaining discipline is nonsense - for one thing they do not face the class all the time, as I do. I can tell what is going on from a whisper, a giggle or the scrape of a chair. And the children are wonderfully moral, even the toughest of them, they don't allow each other to misbehave. I work in a different way from sighted teachers. It's not about discipline, it's about establishing a partnership with the children."
Margaret Davies, who takes a Year 1 class at Grangetown Infants in Cardiff, thought she would have to give up teaching when she was forced into a wheelchair following a spinal operation in 1990. "I thought I would be unable to cope physically, but my teacher encouraged me to give it a go and I gradually adapted," she says.
Some activities are obviously beyond her - playground duty and pinning pictures on the wall, for example. But otherwise she does the same as any other teacher, including taking her year group on coach trips.
She says the children ignore her wheelchair. "They enjoy wheeling me around and occasionally express curiosity about how I get into bed, but mostly they just take it for granted."
Although her LEA initially suggested she change schools to a more suitable building, she resisted because she wanted to continue working with people she knew. As the school already had a disabled toilet, the only adaptation necessary was a ramp into the playground, provided by the local placement, assessment and counselling team (PACT) under the Access to Work scheme.
Although she appreciates the ramp, Mrs Davies would like to have been consulted about its construction. "The shape isn't quite right," she says. "It's too steep. I can just about manage it, but couldn't if I had weak arms. People sometimes seem to do what's politically correct without giving it due care and attention. "
This point is reiterated by the NUT's disability spokesperson. "All too often, adjustments and adaptations are made without imagination. It is important to ask disabled employees what they want and need, and not make assumptions on their behalf."
While approving some of the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act, the union sees it as two steps forward and one step back. "The act has weaknesses because it is based on the premise that disabled people have a problem, rather than that disabled people face discrimination. We believe it is society that creates disability for people with impairments."
This view is certainly borne out by the experience of Richard Rieser, advisory teacher for disability and inclusion in the London Borough of Hackney. Although responsible for all 70 schools in his borough, he can get into only four of them in his wheelchair - "and it's not for want of pushing. We still have no properly accessible secondary school in the borough, although Hackney has a high proportion of disabled people. The education system does not see disability as an equal opportunities issue."
Deaf people who want to become teachers face particular difficulties, even if they want to teach the deaf - a situation that infuriates Mabel Davis, headteacher of Heathlands School for the Deaf in St Albans, and the first deaf head to be appointed in more than 100 years.
Her appointment six years ago was seen as a significant breakthrough, although the United Kingdom has no more than a handful of profoundly deaf teachers, compared with hundreds in the United States. "Deafness should be no barrier to teaching, because the important question is not 'can you hear?' but 'can you teach?'," she states. "I am sure it gives the children here at Heathlands a more positive self-image to realise the person in charge is deaf."
RADAR, 12 City Forum, 250 City Road, London EC1V 8AF. Tel: 0171 250 3222.
For details about Access to Work, contact the PACT team at your local Job Centre
A FIT PLACE TO WORK
The Disability Discrimination Act, 1995 states that employers have a duty to make "reasonable adjustments" so a disabled person is not at a substantial disadvantage compared with a non-disabled person. Examples of adjustments governing bodies and LEAs might reasonably have to make include:
* altering premises such as widening doorways, providing ramps and parking spaces
* allocating some duties to another employee
* altering working hours perhaps allowing an employee who becomes disabled to work part-time or to job share)
* changing the person's place of work from an upstairs to a downstairs classroom, for instance
* allowing absences for treatment and rehabilitation
* additional training use of special equipment, or retraining in a new subject area, for example
* installing any necessary equipment such as induction loops in the school hall, magnifying facilities or an adapted telephone
* providing a reader or signer.