Winning against the odds

1st November 2002 at 00:00
Sue Gilroy is a Commonwealth champion, but her first primary post was her biggest prize, writes Matthew Brown.

At around 3pm on Sunday, August 4, the smiling, crying faces of Sue Gilroy's family beamed out from the nation's television screens. The tears of her husband, Steve, were captured in close-up by BBC cameras, while her parents, Ray and Ann, and four-year-old son, Ryan, joined in the family joy. "It was unbelievable," remembers Sue. "So many people were crying. I never expected that reaction."

Mrs Gilroy is a primary school teacher, but she's also a wheelchair table tennis player. And the tears and cheers came because she had just won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, her tournament having been one of 10 events for so-called "elite athletes with a disability" that were integrated into the games for the first time. Mrs Gilroy's victory carried extra emotional weight because her father, Ray, seriously ill with cancer, was there to see it.

"Winning was brilliant," she says. "Especially in my own country. But it made my day that Dad was there. It seems to have given him a new lease of life, that gold medal."

Four weeks later, the 29-year-old embarked on a new stage of her life when she took up her post as a Year 3 teacher at Shawlands primary school in Barnsley. It's not Mrs Gilroy's first teaching position - she had a temporary post at another Barnsley primary, Wellgate, from January to July, and taught for eight years before that at Barnsley sixth-form college - but it is the realisation of a long-held dream. "Teaching primary was what I always wanted to do," she says. "While I was at university my condition got so bad that I ended up in a wheelchair. That disrupted things for a while."

Mrs Gilroy's "condition" is a degenerative muscle disorder that means her joints dislocate and she loses her balance. The problems started when she was 11, and became serious at 15. "I had a lot of operations that all seemed to go wrong," she says. "At university I kept falling down. That's when I got the wheelchair."

At 15, she also gave up table tennis. She'd taken it up as a youngster and became good enough to win the local Sheffield league shortly before her disability forced her to retire. It took five years to get back to the table. "I didn't know there was such a thing as wheelchair table tennis until I went to a disabled sports club," she says. "At first, I couldn't even get the ball over the net." Within two years she was in the national squad and soon became Britain's number one, her dominance interrupted only when Ryan was born. She is ranked eighth in the world in her class, and recently reached the quarter-finals of the world championships in Taipei.

At one point, she even thought about concentrating on the sport full-time. "But I love the job too much," she says. And, anyway, the lottery funding she receives is only enough to pay for equipment and some travel to competitions. Coaches' fees, at pound;25 per hour, two or three times a week, have to come out of her teacher's salary. "I can spend pound;50 to pound;100 a week on training," she says. "Then there's travel as well."

No one seems to know how many teachers in the UKare disabled, although a 1994 survey by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation estimated it was around 1 per cent. That's significantly less than the 16 per cent of the overall potential workforce identified by the Labour Force Survey as disabled under the definitions of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).

Richard Reiser is a former teacher and now director of Disability Equality in Education. "There is massive under-representation in teaching," he says. "If the intellectual ability to be a teacher is there, there is no reason why the physical bit can't be sorted out. It happens in other walks of life, but teaching is definitely behind other professions."

The small number of disabled teachers, he says, shows how slow schools have been to respond to their duties under the DDA. The act, which came into force this September, makes it unlawful for schools to discriminate against disabled pupils - that is, to treat them less favourably or put them at a "substantial disadvantage". Schools have to make "reasonable adjustments" to make sure disabled pupils can be included.

What many schools fail to realise, says Mr Reiser, is that under the act they also have a duty not to discriminate as employers, so they should have been making the same "reasonable adjustments" to avoid discriminating against disabled teachers. "Little has changed since the Disability Discrimination Act," he says. "Unfortunately it's still true that in most cases writing 'disabled' on a job application form is a disincentive for schools to interview people."

The story of Hazel Peasley, a wheelchair-user who qualified to teach in 1991 and started applying for NQT posts in primary schools, has a less happy ending. "I applied for about 10 jobs within a year but didn't get a single interview," she says. "In the end I was getting despondent. I just felt they weren't interested." So she gave up.

Mrs Gilroy recognises the feeling. "At first, when I decided to retrain for primary teaching, I was told I would never get a job," she says. "It was quite disheartening." One afternoon she rang 15 Barnsley schools to find out how many were wheelchair accessible. None was. "Everyone said they didn't know any disabled teachers. I found it so unhelpful. As it happens, I got the first job I was interviewed for. I was amazed."

She still looked around the school before she accepted the job. "There were no toilets big enough, no ramps, no doors I could get through in my wheelchair, and the car park needed rebuilding," she laughs. She said to headteacher Jeff Sawyer: "You realise how much you're going to have to change?" Obviously, he did.

"He's had almost the entire school converted for me," she says. "They pretty much knocked it down and rebuilt it. Now there's a disabled toilet, they've had all their doors widened, they've put an automatic electric door at the front. It's brilliant."

Mrs Gilroy's wheelchair even goes up and down so she can reach the board. "Being in a wheelchair has not affected my teaching," she says. "The kids have been the best because they adapt so well. They never play up or anything, and I've not had one negative comment. I'm just Mrs Gilroy - that's it.

"I've had a hell of a fight to get where I am, but I've proved I'm as good a teacher as anyone else. The barriers are only there if you create them. Tables can be moved, things can be changed. To me, the solutions are simple; it just might take a bit longer to work them out."

Amazingly, Mrs Gilroy says she's never met another disabled teacher. "It's a shame," she says. "It's brilliant for children to see disabled teachers because it becomes the norm then. It's a bonus for the school because it gives the kids another insight into life." It's positive for the staff too, she says, and for the school as a whole. "At least now this school is converted, so it might attract more disabled people."

Whether she'll find Mr Sawyer so accommodating to her table tennis needs is another matter. She hopes to play in six ranking competitions next year to get enough points to qualify for the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. "Most competitions are at the weekends," she says. "But there are some that fall in the week. I don't know how that's going to go down with the head. I hope I'll still be able to go, but teaching pays the bills. The job has to come first."

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