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Disabled People Ought to be Solving the Teacher Recruitment Crisis
Ruth is a secondary school English teacher with cerebral palsy and Perthes’ Disease, a condition that affects her hip. Here she writes about her experience of being a working disabled person.
It’s ten to seven on a Monday morning in February and I’m putting on a pair of tights. Not the sheer kind; they would be unlikely to survive the necessary stretching, pulling and twisting. These are bright purple and woolly. I want people to notice them so that it will make the next ten minutes seem worth it. It’s always tricky to decide which leg to try first; should it be the one I can raise, but that has the foot that doesn’t move much, and which stubbornly points in just the wrong direction, or the other, which has a more flexible foot but a leg that definitely won’t lift by itself?
Part of me, sometimes quite a large part, would love to admit defeat, to crawl back under my duvet but, an hour later, I find myself in my classroom checking emails and chatting to a Year Seven student who is slightly embarrassed that she is the only person to have yet arrived.
I love my job. In fact I really love it. I am a 48 year-old woman who walks a bit and, contrary to what I feared when I first acquired my crutches and wheelchair, it suits me very well. Four years ago I wondered how I would manage to maintain the necessary pace, whether my sitting tolerance would be sufficient and if sleep-deprivation would make continuing impossible. Thankfully, my worst fears have yet to materialise. Not that I don’t still frequently ask myself what on earth I’m doing, and can I really carry on doing it?
Professionally, I must always focus on tomorrow’s lessons, the new novel I will be teaching next term, or next summer’s exams. As a disabled person, my strategy is not to think too far ahead. I try not to dwell on those tricky questions like ‘What happens if my mobility deteriorates further or my pain increases?’ I have learned that I must often tell myself, because I cannot rely on society to do so, that the world is definitely not doing me a favour by employing me, that I am, in fact, a better teacher because I am disabled.
Part of why it has turned out to be such a good choice is that I spend most of my day surrounded by teenagers and tweens. They know what it’s like to be part of a group about which unfair and untrue assumptions are often made. Google ‘baby’ and the focus is on cute outfits and nursery furniture. Try ‘teenager’ and it’s all about who they have been stabbing and how to survive if you happen to be the parent of one. They are funny, curious, they want to change the world, they wear their hearts very much on their sleeves and, like me, are still figuring out how to be the new version of themselves into which they seem to be turning. They manage what I find that adults so often don’t; they notice that I am disabled just the right amount, and ignore it just the right amount too. And, best of all, it never, ever, occurs to them to think that I might know less than my colleagues about Mr Darcy or apostrophes because I go to assembly with a pink wheelchair and can’t hop.
My job demands that I put on up to five performances a day. And that kind of helps. I very definitely am not allowed to swear when I sneeze, and my nerves jangle, and there is nothing like ten people trying simultaneously to ask you ten different questions to take your mind off whichever bit of your skeleton might currently be screaming for attention.
It is true that my decision to stick with teaching, a job that consumes about 98% of my available energy, has given me a slightly odd existence, one that I suspect that my colleagues don’t realise that I have and that can make me feel a little distant from them. They probably don’t know that, as my bank statement will testify, I rarely have the stamina left over to go anywhere by myself during term-time, that sitting on the wrong chair, a spell of the wrong weather or an extra bit of walking that I wasn’t expecting, might mean that I will have to cancel an optimistically-made weekend plan because, instead, I will need to recover.
But, for the moment at least, I think that am where I am supposed to be and soon, as I frequently need to remind myself, it will be summer. No, it’s not the thought of the six week ‘break’ that keeps me going. By May it should be warm enough to ditch the tights and I will be able to get up ten minutes later.
What do you think of Ruth’s story? Can you relate to her experiences of working as a disabled person?