A word for and from teachers with disabilities

Written by: Mark Lyn | Published:
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This is fantastic and really helpful to me in my role as a Head. I would be delighted to talk to ...

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What does your school do to support its teachers with disabilities? Mark Lyn is conducting research into the barriers disabled staff face and what best practice in schools might look like

This an article about my current research work with teachers with disabilities, but before I begin I would like to tell a story.

A good friend of mine who is also a stammerer, like myself, once told me this. At the time she worked at a well known adult education institution in London as a librarian, problems would arise when she worked at the issuing counter.

The problem was that the queue of people waiting to be served felt that they had to wait much longer than usual. Tempers would flare and the tut-tutting would get audibly and, if you can imagine, visually louder.

So it was suggested that she wear a badge saying “I am a stammerer, I need more time to speak”.

I have had the benefit of years since hearing this story to try and work with the story in my thinking. One question I keep asking myself is this: Who was the wearing of the badge meant to help the most: my friend or the people in the queue?

Part of the research work for my PhD saw me recently interview experienced teachers who also had disabilities about their experiences, knowledge and insights of being disabled in schools. The interviews touched on a wide range of issues and this information I hope to disclose and share with as many different people on and through as many different platforms as I can over time.

There seemed to be a few common themes running through all that was said. These included selection of employment, aspirations to senior levels, pedagogy and SEN.

One of the central themes which came out was that these teachers felt that they needed someone to actually listen to them when they speak. One teacher who worked as a SENCO summed up this sentiment: “I’ve never had a chat with someone saying ‘look we know that you’ve got dyslexia with a stammer, just what can we do to support you with your job and your work?’ – never had that, never been mentioned at all.”

To be sure, this question of “help” arises not because of the inherent helplessness of people with disabilities, but because so much in the world and in the environment is designed for, arranged, assumed and was built for those who embodied as non-disabled.

Mentioned also was the issues of who to go to and seek out with requests for dialogue. One teacher interviewed was quite sure that this person should not be their line manager. Many schools are now very large institutions and from the point of view of individual teachers, faced with what can seem like a phalanx of management, who exactly can and should be approached regarding what matter can seem daunting.

Two other teachers thought the SENCO for the school should be the go-to person for teachers with disabilities. Having the SENCO be involved with the accommodation of teachers with disabilities of course raises a whole set of questions and posits another whole set of assumptions.

As many schools, if not most, maintain only one equality policy document for both staff and for pupils, the SENCO is already involved to some degree or another. Here I advocate for neither position regarding the involvement of the SENCO other than for clarity. If the SENCO is going to be directly involved then it needs to be clear why that decision has been made – what are the advantages and disadvantages of this? What message does it convey and what statements does it make true?

But there is also, and there has to be, an ethical onus on the school to act a priori. One headteacher I interviewed had recently become disabled. Although she had other close members of her family who had always been disabled, becoming disabled herself seemed to have been an epiphany-like experience for her.

Not only did she arrange for alterations to the physical layout of the building to suit her own new means of mobility, she went further than this. She contacted and brought in a range of organisations with people with a wide range of disabilities to come into the school to make recommendations on what else could be changed for others, even though such people remained yet unseen by the school.

So for example the staffroom is now multi-coloured in decor. The reason for this is that people who are partially sighted can navigate their way around the environment much better if things which are physically different and not connected to each other are of contrasting colours to other objects around them.

You may notice I have not mentioned anything to do with legal due process; the omission is intended. Anyone who has began to study equality law to any depth will soon realise that it is not an unproblematic arena that offers all the knowledge needed to arrive at an expected solution.

Take for example the legal practice known as levelling down. What this means is that in some cases a practice may not be termed to be discriminatory if everyone is equally negatively affected by it. One of the most striking things that I have observed while researching disability over the past five years is how often what would otherwise be understood as the granting of respect or being polite tends to take on legal terms when done for people with disabilities.

Here then I want to foreground the importance of ethics. The ethics of supporting each other with the risks in the social environment. Ethics seemed to be missing in the story of my friend and the wearing of the badge saying “I am disabled”.

As the headteacher mentioned above told me, she has observed over the years that the difference between an organisation that get a lot of things right for disabled people and one that doesn’t is the people at the top. Ethics understood and implemented as a static check-list will come too late to save us.

Although I take issue with the language used, the Equality Act 2010 does allow for “more favourable treatment” to be applied to the employment of people with disabilities, so why not take encouragement from that and ask what more can be practically done to accommodate people with disabilities as employees in schools. Questions to ask might include:

  • Where can information about the ample amounts of money available through the Access to Work Scheme be made available to staff (let us stop the scheme being one of the best kept secrets of the modern era)?
  • Which forums and methods of communication can be established so that people with disabilities employed in schools can be actually heard?
  • Will there be that one go-to person in management?
  • Which organisations with disabled people can be invited into schools to offer advice and recommendations?

Nearly all forms of affirmative action are explicitly outlawed in the Equality Act 2010 but none of these suggestions listed here can be said to contravene this law.

My research work will soon be drawing to a close. I only need more headteachers who are prepared to offer a few moments of their time to be interviewed. I write this article in the hope that it will lead to someone stepping forward. I also write this article to share with you some of the things people who work in schools and are disabled would like to see.

  • Mark Lyn is a lecturer who lives and works in London and is studying for his PhD at the University of Roehampton. Contact him via lynm@roehampton.ac.uk

Hi Jenny, that is great. Can I suggest you email me then please. My email is given inn the endnote of the article. Thanks. Mark
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This is fantastic and really helpful to me in my role as a Head. I would be delighted to talk to you!
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