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Disabled People Ought to be Solving the Teacher Recruitment Crisis

RamRam Member Posts: 39 Pioneering
edited March 2018 in Guest blogs

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?

woman with curly brown hair and wearing a black top smiling at the camera

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?


  • SallyDSallyD Member Posts: 3 Listener
    Admirable Ruth - long may you feel able to continue - I fought my way back to working part-time after Cancer, but last year felt the pressure was too much and was stopping me having a life outside work - so I decided to start 2018 retired.  I miss the interaction with students - I too was teaching, but I also feel my life needs to be run at my pace now.  I volunteer 3 times a week for a few hours and have joined a couple of craft groups - so can have something to do each day or like today take a day to say I am not up to much. Whilst I am looking forward to Spring for the warmth, I only have a struggle to get undressed thankfully - but the tale of the purple tights made me smile. 

  • RamRam Member Posts: 39 Pioneering
    Thanks Sally; I'm glad that it made you smile, and that you are finding a pace that works for you. It definitely isn't easy and it is definitely the kids that keep me going.
  • SallyDSallyD Member Posts: 3 Listener
    You have my admiration wish I was a bit younger and had more energy 

  • CordyCordy Member Posts: 1 Listener
    OMG, Ruth, I'm in awe.   <3
    Thank you for all  you do for us at school, and particularly in the Library where you are so supportive. 
  • RamRam Member Posts: 39 Pioneering
    Thanks. The Library continues to be the best, and most important, place in the school. It's a pleasure to work with you.
  • glomac1glomac1 Member Posts: 4 Listener
    Well done Ruth.  Teaching is a tiring job at the best of times but oh so rewarding.  I think that having dome kind of disability does help to make you more effective because you are aware of needing to overcome problems which makes you more sensitive to the needs of your  learner.
    Good luck to you. Long may you continue and continue to find enjoyment and satisfaction in your work

  • RamRam Member Posts: 39 Pioneering
    Thanks for your kind comments, and thanks for reading. I will carry on teaching as long as I can. I wish all employers recognised the many benefits of employing disabled people; I think that there is a long way to go on that one!
  • WaylayWaylay Member Posts: 888 Pioneering
    So, I have a question. I'm considering becoming a physics/maths/geology teacher, as they're very much needed and I'm a seismologist. There are apparently ways to get paid to train, which I would need, as I'm in debt from losing my PIP. Do they make reasonable adjustments for disabled people? I would probably need to be part-time, and have somewhere to lie down between classes. I can't stand for more than 10 minutes, but thought that if I could project the screen of my computer on a wall, I could teach that way. How has your experience been? I'm just scared, because I've heard that being a teacher is so incredibly stressful, and the hours are so long....
  • RamRam Member Posts: 39 Pioneering
    I completely understand your fears and I am very sorry to hear about your PIP. I am no expert on current teacher training but have a few suggestions and thoughts.  

    I don't know where you are in the UK, but many schools would be happy to let you go in and observe lessons which could help you with your decision-making.

    My impression is that universities want to be supportive, and getting in contact with any that particularly interest you would be a good idea so that you can start to discuss your needs. You clearly have expertise in shortage subjects and  so I hope that they would want to encourage you as much as possible.

    I have had support from Access to Work and have a range of seating options in my classroom and some reasonable adjustments which make it all possible for me. Technology certainly helps, and it is common practice for teachers to use projectors and smart boards. My standing sounds not dissimilar to yours.

    Once you were working, there are always part-time options which you could combine with tutoring and exam marking if working from home some of the time would help.

    Good luck with your next steps and let me know if I can help more.
  • GeoarkGeoark Community champion, Scope Volunteer Posts: 1,273 Disability Gamechanger
    @Waylay there are different routes into teaching and financial support while you are training. As well as University there are now schools that let you train while working as a teacher. Both Maths and Physics are priority subjects with additional support to get into training. 

    I would suggest starting at and in particular for what is available in terms of financial support.

    As an individual I stood alone.
    As a member of a group I did things.
    As part of a community I helped to create change!

  • WaylayWaylay Member Posts: 888 Pioneering
  • WaylayWaylay Member Posts: 888 Pioneering
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  • WaylayWaylay Member Posts: 888 Pioneering
    @Victoriad Thanks for the info! I have no savings after years on benefits, and need to retrain, as my physical disability makes going back to my old career impossible (field work, long hours at a desk, etc.). Unfortunately, as I have an advanced degree, I'm not eligible for any grants or schemes. :/ Going back to uni or another upper-level training program is impossible, as you can no longer get ESA as a disabled student. I'd love to train as a counsellor / therapist, but there's just no way.

    However, training as a physics teacher (I'm a geophysicist) gets you £30,000 to live on (I'd have to do it part-time, but £15k a year is triple what I'm on now, so I think I could make it work (and actually afford enough to eat 3 meals a day! Woo!). 

    However, my mental health has deteriorated severely since becoming disabled ( the treatment I've received from the benefits system is a major part of that), and the way I handle stress has completely change. I used to find stress invigorating - it spurred me on, to work harder and better. Now it paralyzes me, and adds to my already severe insomnia. I literally become incapable of doing anything but staring at the computer screen in a state of insanely high anxiety. My last job (first try at going back to work) ended with me hospitalised for a severe exacerbation of my chronic pain (5 days of IV morphine), and I was completely incapable of communicating with anyone, by any means, including my boss. I never talked to him again. 

    So yeah, a stressful career is out of the question for me. Thanks for the warning. :/
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