Before her car accident, Rachel* was an outstanding history teacher with head-of-year responsibilities and a promising career ahead of her. The day of her collision changed everything. Paralysed from the waist down, Rachel could no longer walk and was confined to a wheelchair.
Things weren’t easy when it came to returning to work. Rather than the school finding ways to make reasonable adjustments for Rachel, she was met with hostility and inflexibility from the senior leadership team. They demanded unreasonable conditions for a phased return and were slow to make the necessary adaptations to her classroom. When further medical complications arose, Rachel was forced to take more time off to recover and she was eventually dismissed following the expiration of her sick-leave entitlement.
We like to think of ourselves as an inclusive profession. We do our best to ensure that every student, no matter the barriers that they face, has a productive experience in school. But does that aim transfer from the classroom to the staffroom? Just how inclusive is teaching itself?
Rachel’s story is not uncommon. Disabled teachers across the UK are telling similar tales of frustration about a profession that can be inflexible, ill-informed and, on occasion, simply unkind – and the problem appears to be growing.
A TUC survey of teachers (bit.ly/DisabledTeachers) from March last year reported that there had not only been an increase in harassment, but also a decrease in both the employment of, and willingness to accommodate, disabled staff. As part of this survey, around three-quarters (77 per cent) of disabled NASUWT teaching union members reported facing discrimination at work.
At NASUWT’s Disabled Teachers’ Consultation Conference in June, two-thirds of delegates said that they felt their employer didn’t take their disability seriously (see box, ‘How disabled teachers are treated’, right).
“Numbers attending the disabled teachers’ conference continue to rise each year,” says Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT. “The figures certainly indicate that discrimination remains a serious problem.”
She adds that the “prejudice and bullying” that many teachers with disabilities continue to experience throughout their careers is “deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable”.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), agrees that schools have a serious inclusivity problem when it comes to staff.
“There is a widespread lack of awareness by employers of disabled people’s rights under the Equality Act 2010,” she explains. “Some disabled staff have difficulties getting their employer to make the reasonable adjustments they are legally entitled to, and getting time off for disability-related appointments, and they face pressure to give up their management responsibilities.”
Clearly, many schools are failing to practise what they preach when it comes to inclusivity. The question is: why?
Lack of understanding
The answer has more to do with a lack of information and understanding about disability in schools, rather than deliberate ill will towards disabled members of staff.
Jackie*, a secondary school teacher with multiple sclerosis, says that problems arise “through ignorance rather than necessarily malice” and that “there’s not enough [guidance] out there, especially for senior leaders”.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT teaching union, adds that “cuts to local authority funding mean that the coordinated and proactive work that some LAs used to do with the schools in their area has been lost”.
Senior leaders privately admit that they are failing in this area. Several headteachers from schools across the country disclose that they lack knowledge of how to support disabled colleagues in school and that they are unsure of the legal requirements. They argue, though, that this lack of knowledge is down to not having any disabled teachers working for them.
Richard Rieser, a former teacher and union representative who now works as an equality trainer, himself disabled, argues that the latter situation is incredibly unlikely.
The definition of disability, according to the Equality Act 2010, is surprisingly broad. It covers any physical or mental impairment that substantially affects a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities for a period of 12 months or more. As such, it includes progressive conditions such as HIV or cancer from the point of diagnosis.
As disability makes up one of the nine protected characteristics under the Act, it is prohibited to discriminate against, harass or victimise disabled colleagues. In addition, employers are under a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled employees. Typical adjustments could include extra time off for medical appointments, timetable reorganisation or the provision of dedicated classroom support.
How many teachers are currently classed as disabled? The Department for Education refuses to divulge that information (TES has a Freedom of Information request pending for the figures).
But Rieser says that almost every school will have at least one disabled member of staff; they often just don’t realise it because people generally “don’t understand the definition [of a disability]”.
“In addition, there are a lot of disabled teachers who are frightened to notify their employer because they think that it will affect their performance pay, their appraisal and, in the end, with more cuts coming into schools, they might be the first ones down to be made redundant, so they don’t want to put their head above the parapet,” he says.
Aside from this being a sad reflection on the perception of schools as employers of disabled people, not telling the school also means that the teacher essentially gives up many of their rights.
Matthew Wolton, partner at law firm Clark Holt, notes that “the obligation [under the Equality Act] only applies where the school knows, or ought to know, of the teacher’s disability and the likelihood of the teacher being disadvantaged”.
This means that disabled teachers who choose not to disclose their disability cannot reasonably expect the school to make adjustments for them and, as such, could actually increase their chances of negative repercussions if it is discovered that they did not inform the school.
What needs to change?
But considering the apparent lack of compliance with the law around disability, one can see why disabled teachers might take that decision. So how can schools get up to speed and ensure that they are truly an inclusive profession?
The ATL is looking to address the issue with the release of Equality for Disabled School Staff: ATL guidelines, which has been published this week (see box, ‘New guidance on disability, page 28).
Bousted hopes that it will “raise the profile of the issues disabled members face to help them achieve equality in the workplace”.
But what makes it different from the guidance already issued by the other major unions? Rieser, the main adviser on this document, says that it aims to not just educate but empower. He hopes that it will “raise confidence and self-esteem levels for teachers who acquire or have an impairment”.
The guidance ultimately calls for schools to be more “anticipatory” in their actions; so anticipating necessary adjustments, instead of waiting for members of staff to “fail” and then reacting accordingly or having a blanket policy for the whole staff.
Maria Chambers, director of education and employment at the disability charity Scope, says that adopting such a stance is crucial for schools. “We have to get better at listening to disabled employees, who are experts in how best to manage their conditions,” she says.
Wolton adds that schools need to be more aware of their responsibilities and also where they can seek extra support. He explains that while schools “are not expected to spend vast sums of money… they should be prepared to be creative to overcome the difficulties”.
One way of doing this is to find out about government services and charities that could help financially, such as the government’s Access to Work service.
Rieser also suggests putting “disability equality training back into a cycle of professional development [for all staff] in all schools” (most of the major unions provide resources for such training). He explains that he only gets called in to train staff in schools that have been ordered to arrange it on the basis of being found guilty of disability discrimination at a tribunal.
Finally, schools that are excelling in this area need to be celebrated and recognised. Rieser says that, despite the generally negative picture, there are pockets of excellent practice that need to be celebrated and learned from (see case studies, page 30-31).
The fact that there are schools that are doing such a good job in this area just highlights how disappointing it is that so many do not.
For a profession that is all about giving every individual the best chance possible at life, it seems odd that it can present so many barriers for a number of teachers who wish to be part of it.
“The main problem we have as disabled teachers is not our impairment,” says Rieser. “Our main problem is the barriers of attitude, the barriers of organisation and the barriers of the environment.”
*Several names have been changed in order to protect the individual’s anonymity
Nicola Davison is a former teacher and is now a content producer for TES Resources @nicolajdavison
New guidance on disability
The new ATL guidance highlights a section of the Equality Act 2010 called the Public Sector Duty, which decrees that all schools that are publicly funded – including academies and free schools – actively promote disability equality by considering how they can tackle discrimination and disadvantage.
It not only applies to the formulation of policies, but also to their application in the day-to-day running of the school. The medical model of disability, which suggests that the “problem” sits solely with the disabled individual, is what largely underpins disability law.
But the Public Sector Duty leans more towards the increasingly common social model, which views disability as being caused by the way that society is organised and not solely by the person’s impairment.
You can download the guidance at bit.ly/ATLguide
The schools that get it right on disability
‘My school and colleagues bend over backwards to help’
I have albinism. The first and most immediately striking thing about my condition is my physical appearance. I have no pigment in my skin, which means I am exceptionally pale, an effect topped off by my entirely white hair. It’s fair to say I stand out in a school.
But the far more pertinent issue for me is my eyesight. Like many who share my condition, I am chronically short-sighted. My eyes get tired fairly quickly, too, so sustained periods of paperwork are tricky.
My appearance does get commented upon. But every single teacher who takes on a new class has their physical appearance, mannerisms, accent, haircut, dress sense and smell put well and truly under the microscope – and this is just as true of the disabled as it is for anyone else.
My eyesight is more of a problem, but like every person who has a disability, I have found ways to cope that suit me. My classroom layout is such that I can get close to all of my students easily so I can interact as normally as is feasible. I use seating plans all the time, so I know exactly who is where. I have an extra-large monitor on my computer to help with my paperwork and with taking registers.
The marking is definitely my biggest challenge, but I ensure that I do this in short bursts so that my eyes don’t tire too badly. I also tend to do this before school rather than in the evening so I have the optimal energy and focus. My school and colleagues tend to bend over backwards to help if ever I mention I am having a difficulty.
Partly, I think this is down to our experiences within the classroom. Every one of us can name the students we have taught with severe disabilities or learning difficulties who somehow manage to not just cope but often thrive, demonstrating resilience and defying expectations. If children can manage that, there is no reason that adults can’t too.
Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of faculty for social sciences at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Faversham
‘Staff have been accepting and kind’
I was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 23. It was a worrying time for me, especially when my neurologist explained what had caused the seizures I had been suffering: reading. I was told this mere months before starting my PGCE.
Many people don’t really have the first idea what epilepsy entails. They think that if you stare into a flashing light you have a little twitch on the floor. I stare at flashing lights all the time. But a decent book on a long journey? Expect the entire First Great Western railway network to be delayed.
Seizures aren’t nice. When I’m about to have one, I lose control of my internal monologue and it just spews words out at random. I can’t speak, so I can’t warn anyone what is about to happen. Then I black out.
When I come to, I’ve bitten off the sides of my tongue and I don’t know what’s going on. I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy. I just got on with my PGCE without thinking. Then, suddenly, on my first placement, people starting making a fuss of me, asking if I was alright and if there was anything they could do and such like, and I had difficulty in being humble enough to actually admit that I was different in my needs.
We tailor so much to our students, but we are often too proud to admit that we need help. Or maybe sometimes we are just a little surprised that people actually ask if we need help.
I have been surrounded by staff who are accepting and kind. They cared, regularly and compassionately. They gave me lifts, helped me with marking and made sure I was OK. When I did have seizures they covered me the next day and forced me to stay at home. They are probably a good chunk of the reason why I’ve never had a seizure in front of children. I never wanted students to suffer because of me.
Crispin Knill is lead English teacher at Space Studio, West London
‘Working with children helped me to come to terms with the trauma’
It was a beautiful, sunny day and I set out on my lovingly restored motorbike with a group of friends. We didn’t arrive at Matlock – our destination – because near Leek, a car drove into me. I flew down the road. My bike flew, too. Unfortunately, my left arm had been amputated in the collision.
My life changed immeasurably that day, both personally and professionally. I was incredibly lucky to have survived and, while I lay in hospital surrounded by flowers and cards, I made a conscious decision that I had to get out of there and get on with my life. My injury was so unusual that there was no chance of prosthesis and the phantom pain from my left hand was (and still is) pretty horrendous. However, by the September after the accident, I was back to working full time.
Returning to work proved to be a real challenge for me. I am fiercely independent and I found it frustrating trying to carry on as I had before. It turns out that it is tricky cutting out letters for displays and stapling up backing paper with one hand, although I did manage this (largely due to being exceedingly stubborn).
Everything seemed to take a lot longer than before. Marking books took ages because I had to put the pen down, move the book, find the page and pick the pen back up. And marking pieces of paper... well, that now brings a whole new range of challenges!
It is amazing how quickly children, from my Reception classes up to Year 6, learned to hold everything still without any prompting.
Eventually, I realised that I needed help. This manifested itself in Access to Work [a government disability support scheme] paying for 17 hours’ worth of TA cover to do all the practical aspects of display and resourcing.
Nowadays, I am entitled to eight hours.
There have been times over the 15 years since the accident when I could have screamed. I was once told that, although I taught Year 6, I couldn’t go on the residential trip with them because I couldn’t drive the minibus.
But my current school, thankfully, has been amazing. And working with children has helped me to come to terms with the trauma. When you stand in front of wonderful children and they tell you that it is “OK because you have a teddy bear arm now”, and they (hilariously, but slightly worryingly) ask you which arm it was that you hurt, things don’t seem quite so bad after all.
We all have to face challenges, and my latest one reared its ugly head a month after my second daughter was born. In January 2014, I was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of bone marrow cancer. However, I got through the initial treatment and I am thankfully in complete remission for now.
Life has been hard, but I have two beautiful daughters and work in the best profession I know.
Ellie Hebert teaches at Huntingtower CP Academy in Grantham