Today’s news includes an announcement that the government wants to support disabled people to stay in employment, and reduce the likelihood of employers simply writing them off.
I can’t welcome this enough. I realise that for some people – those with severe disabilities or who have a much more progressed condition – this is not an option. Yet for many, it could be, with some changes in perception and understanding of the general population. My experience testifies to this. Sadly.
I honestly believed when I was diagnosed two years ago that it would not affect ability to do my job, and would certainly not result in me leaving the teaching profession. I was right about the first point, and wrong about the latter.
Did having MS make me less of a teacher? No. (In fact it resulted in me stepping down from a leadership role in order to focus more on my teaching. So perhaps it made me a better teacher?) Did it increase my levels of absence? No. When I was hospitalised during a major relapse, I took a total of 4 days off. I was in hospital for three of those, and I would have gone back the next day except I was told I had to wait for a risk assessment as I was unable to walk. My A level classes missed a maximum of three lessons each, all of which had work supplied by me and marked, with feedback, and discussed with the students. Ironically the longest absence I took during the last two years has been that caused not by MS but by a chest infection. Just that. Just like any other teacher who shares a building with a thousand people and is tired during a term that includes a parents evening a week (and therefore a 12-hour day) for seven weeks straight. Not an MS thing then.
Did having MS make me less able to relate to my students? Definitely not. I had a new-found realisation of the significance of Plato’s maxim, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. It increased my ability to empathise – surely not a bad trait for a teacher? Did it make me less of an inspiration to my students? I think it didn’t, and I base this on many things, not least the fact that one of my classes nominated me for a Teacher of the Year Award (which I won in November 2015). It enabled students to come to me when they felt weak or vulnerable, or overwhelmed, and know that I could support them and empathise. And they did come to me. And I did support them.
So why did it result in me being considered unsuitable as a teacher, and eventually forced out of the profession? Why, when I was brought into my principal’s office to discuss voluntary redundancy, did she utter the words, “We all know that legally your condition shouldn’t make a difference, but we also know that – in reality – it does.” Then later, “The thing is, you’re only going to get worse”. Why was a close colleague of mine told that if I didn’t choose to leave of my own volition, I would be “performance-managed out”, presumably by suddenly finding that my so far good or outstanding teaching had taken a turn for the worse and headed into the lower levels of lesson grades. Why were all three of the subjects I taught subject to a cull during the curriculum review, despite one of them having results above the national average (impressive for a school with our socio-economic context), and another being the most popular A level subject on offer, with over half of 6th form students opting to take it as one of their options?
I can only put this down to a lack of understanding of the benefits of employing those with a disability in the teaching profession, and a lack of willingness to allow a teacher to, well… teach. Just teach, do it well, and perhaps make small but necessary changes in the peripheral duties that have come to be expected as part of our “goodwill”.
There were things I couldn’t (or rather shouldn’t) do. I wasn’t able to stand still for long periods, especially in the cold, so it was recommended that I don’t do outdoor duties. Let us remember that duties were always pitched as “voluntary”; let us also remember that I was always happy to do the voluntary break time and lunchtime duties indoors, sitting down. Yet the need for a small moment of consideration when planning the rota, rather than just an arbitrary placing of names in a spreadsheet, proved too inconvenient. I was unable to perch on the high stool at the teacher’ desk, which already failed to meet DSE guidelines because of not being able to put your feet onto the floor, and so a lower desk and chair was moved into my classroom. This meant I needed to teach in that one room most of the time, to prevent my numb feet from falling off the footrest on the uncomfortable bar stools, and my thighs from joining my lower legs in numbness. I sometimes walked slower than the average person, so was unable to rush across from one side of school to the other amidst the crowds of students at lesson changeover to get to an extra cover lesson, so I asked if I could just do cover in classrooms nearby my own, or at times when I had a free lesson before or after. This again proved too onerous a request and ended up in the Occupational Health doctor asking the school to stop giving me cover for other people’s lessons altogether, seeing as they were unable to manage it sensibly. This still did not stop me agreeing to take the lessons, it just enabled me to ensure this was manageable. I could still do my own work – teaching lessons, marking books, the core of my role – I was just asking for some pragmatic consideration when asked to take on extra. This, it seems, was just not on.
Not one of these relatively minor adjustments in chair height or duty location diminished my ability to inform, inspire, enlighten and support the students in my classroom. I was proud of the fact that I was demonstrating the fact that disability did not need to equate to benefits and unemployment.
So it saddens me to hear that, now that I have left, having taken the decision that I should jump before I was pushed, some students are now being told that I left due to ill health, that I was unable to go on working. Firstly, it knocks my pride, obviously. Secondly, it is simply not true! I am now the East of England Youth Programmes Manager for a fantastic charity working with young people and it is a wonderful but demanding job, and certainly not evidence that I am unable to work.
But lastly – and most importantly – it saddens me because of the message that those students are receiving, which is in direct opposition to the message I wanted to give them. All of those who believe that my MS (rather than other people’s ignorance) was the factor that stopped me from teaching will carry that misconception with them. It will ferment, and grow and be reproduced in the society in which they find themselves as citizens in the future. It might, terrifyingly, impact on their decisions about their own future employees, on their ideas about disabled friends and colleagues. Every time someone with a disability is unsupported, and misunderstood, and “written off” it has ripples of effect far off into the future, and these are damaging for all of us.
Supporting people with disabilities to remain in work where possible benefits society in myriad ways. Governments will focus on the economic advantages, the savings of benefit coffers, the maintained income tax contributions… But I think, I hope, that my students would tell you that they had a better experience because of me having MS, and that it has changed their perceptions of what it means to have a disability. That it has taught them about resilience, and coping with change, and that weakness in one area can manifest itself as strength in another way. That being outside of the box of “normal” is not only fine but can be a wonderful thing. That small changes can make a big difference. That everyone can do something and that all those somethings add up to the fabric of society that we weave collectively.
I hope that one day soon, we will realise as a society that the inconvenient, yet minor, changes that we need to make to allow almost all to function effectively, are a small price to pay for the tapestry of inclusivity that makes us collectively beautiful and ultimately stronger.