It is time for more action on ableism in Education
Hannah Strickland (English tutor and Widening Participation tutor) writes a blog which is featured on our ‘links and blogs’ page. Her first post raises important issues and is reproduced here with permission. Hannah writes:
The last day of February each year is international rare disease day. With this in mind, I am choosing to share my first blog post: a personal think-piece which stems from my experiences of living with a rare disease, to raise awareness and to ask some challenging questions about ableism in education.
2020 was a year of great change; from world and culture-altering COVID, to a wider and renewed commitment to race equality, following the shocking footage of George Floyd’s murder. But many things which need to change do not receive the attention they warrant, remaining on the periphery and unlikely to cause the shockwaves they deserve. In the UK, ableism in Education is a topic which needs our energy as a part of any social equality agenda. Teachers remain largely homogenous and unrepresentative of our diverse society; children lack role models who have the power to alter their expectations for their own lives; school environments are largely inflexible places where more than half of teachers with disabilities say ‘they have experienced an increase in workplace stress in the last year and … the way their school is led and managed contributes negatively to their mental health and wellbeing at work’ (NASUWT, online).
This is a piece aimed to develop educators’ literacy regarding teachers with disabilities and to ask colleagues to start to do more unpicking and challenging of the ableist structures that we exist in, particularly in the arena of teachers in mainstream education.
I am a woman with two chronic conditions, leading me to identify as somebody with invisible physical disabilities. It is contexts which determine dis/abilities and so to a greater and lesser extent in my life, I have been more and less dis/abled in different places and times. Whilst my conditions are an ever-present part of my life and identity, my dis/ability is not fixed and not constant, but as my life has progressed I have become increasingly aware of the disabling contexts of work and social environments, particularly schools.
What is more fixed is the ways in which people respond to me as a person with invisible physical disabilities, which generally takes on two main features. The first is that I evoke sympathy, pity and awe. People can be sympathetic that my body does not work as most bodies do. People can be sympathetic at the life changes and adjustments that I need to make to maintain my quality of life. People can be sympathetic about the physical measures I take as part of my self-care. People are also sometimes disgusted, but most people I meet these days are predominantly kinder in their judgement of my body and experience than the woman on the train who once leaned over the shared table to say ‘Urgh!’ as I completed a routine blood glucose strip test. In my experience though, even in the best-case scenario of sympathy, this does not generally translate into consideration of the structures which make my conditions dis/abling. This is the second main feature of my experience: the success or failures of my existence depend upon my negotiation of accepted structures and settings.
In career terms this has meant that working as a teacher in secondary schools in the UK has been very challenging. Through my experience, reading and research I have found that schools are frequently inflexible environments that make changes for their pupils, but not for their staff. I now work in teacher education after recognising it as a less disabling environment, with an active disability support network to advocate for change within the university workplace.
Another context that has shaped me writing this now is the context of COVID-19 and the changes to the ways that people are living and working. It has demonstrated how much change is possible when the people who have the power to shape contexts actually want to make changes. The demand to do so has been determined as absolute need, and this is largely driven by decisions around attempting to retain economic stability, arguably more so than to protect public health. Suddenly, the flexibility in the ways that people can do their jobs has expanded in previously unimaginable ways. Many dis/abled people will be familiar with the term ‘reasonable adjustments’, used in the 2010 Equality Act to describe the expectation on employers’ actions in supporting staff covered by the legislation. As somebody who has advocated for myself in educational work environments for so-called reasonable adjustments, I know first-hand the reluctance of employers to make changes that could have a real and positive impact, some of which occurred at the drop of a tissue when the collective need of controlling the pandemic became the context. Of course, faster change can always be expected when the stakes are so high, but it does shine a light on what has previously been an utter lack of willing and/or creative thinking where adjustments have been required.
In the public sphere, there is increasing visibility of people from minority groups, including people with disabilities. With each Paralympic games, more broadcasters in more countries are giving more airtime to the event (Paralympic.org, 2019). The UK BBC flagship show Strictly Come Dancing now routinely has a contestant with a physical disability, and the BBC pledged in 2019 to improve the portrayal of disabled people and improve representation (BBC News, 2019). These changes have been applauded for providing realistic and relatable role models, particularly for young people living with disabilities and developing their identity as a person with a disability that can ‘achieve anything if they put their mind to it’, a positive but somewhat misleading message. And yet, when it comes to the teaching profession, role models of any minority group are scarce.
There is limited research into the demographics of teachers with disabilities and even less about the experiences of teachers with disabilities. What there is shows a distinct lack of representation. The most recent statistics on the school workforce to give information about disabled teachers was from the 2016 workforce (gov.uk, 2017). The data collected about the teacher workforces of subsequent years has information about age, gender and ethnicity, but no longer shows anything about disability (gov.uk, 2018; 2019; 2020); is it not even seen to be important enough to report on in each census?
Perhaps the proportion of schools sharing information impacted on the decision of what data to collect. According to the most recent school census less than 1% of teachers have a disability, compared with 18% of working-age adults in the entire UK population (gov.uk, 2017). ‘However, information on disability was not obtained by schools for 50% of teachers in the November 2016 census. The information provided suggests 0.5 per cent of teachers are disabled, however, this may not truly reflect the real position given the large amount of missing data’ (gov.uk, 2017).
Why are teachers not sharing their disabilities with schools? Why are schools not sharing this information with the government? And why have the government stopped asking the question? It seems we may be caught in a negative loop of lack of representation, leading to lack of confidence in teachers with disabilities to be identified, leading to structural issues which perpetuate a lack of representation and a lack of confidence for teachers to share their disabled identities, let alone become role models.
Education policy in the United Kingdom is supposedly rooted in social justice (Gibb, 2015), a philosophy based on the concept of human rights equality. However, to what extent is this social justice of educational equality being achieved? Teachers are acknowledged as important role models for the young people they educate, but the teaching profession is composed of staff who do not represent the diversity of the students in our schools (Keane et al., 2018). This is particularly the case regarding teachers with disabilities, who have the capacity to educate beyond the curriculum (Anderson, 2006); yet according to national statistics, such teachers are low in number within the profession compared to the total working population (Keane et al., 2018; Lepkowska, 2012; Pritchard, 2010).
However, MacLeod and Cebula (2009) found a much higher proportion of student teachers (18%) considered themselves to have a disability/long term medical condition in their study into experiences of disability in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) courses in a Scottish university. This could suggest that there may be considerably more teachers with disabilities, but they are invisible within the profession.
To what degree is it the responsibility of teachers to be disability role models? Aren’t teachers doing enough to serve the social equality agenda by performing a physically, mentally and emotionally gruelling job? And in a COVID climate, putting themselves even more on the line?
But if we don’t advocate for change by asking people to be seen as people with disabilities, can we really improve things? It is a difficult truth that change is unlikely to happen unless we campaign for it. But if there is a responsibility of people with disabilities to be seen, then there is a responsibility for colleagues to see and to listen. In education the majority of teachers with invisible physical disabilities that are present are hiding that aspect of their teacher identity, from their schools and/or their pupils and this needs to change. But to do so, teachers need to know that they will be supported by their school teams and valued by the profession.
Although I began my career as a full time English teacher, after several years with the demands of the job having an impact on my health, I amended my hours to a part time role. My chronic conditions had become disabling in the context of the school environment. But the treatment I received in schools as a part-time colleague did not always match that of full-time staff. My experience is not unique. ‘NASUWT research shows that disabled teachers are more likely to be employed on lower pay … on short-term contracts and more likely to face discrimination at work than the generality of the teaching workforce’ (NASUWT, 2020).
The legal time given to teachers for planning, preparation and assessment is half a day a week, equating to ten percent of teaching time. In one school I worked in, this was doubled for full-time staff in recognition of their hard work. Part-time members of staff were given full-time equivalent hours, according to the legal framework. In practice this meant that a full-time member of staff would have 10 hours of PPA per fortnight; on a 0.6 part-time contract, teaching 3 days a week, I had just 3 hours of PPA per fortnight; I had 60% of my colleagues’ workloads, but I had 30% of their paid preparation time. This contradicts the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document (DfE, 2020) which advises that in schools where teachers receive a higher percentage of non-contact time than the required ten percent, ‘part time teachers … should receive a similar percentage of non-contact time as their full time colleagues’ (National Education Union, 2019).
When I raised this with the school and asked to be treated the same as my full-time colleagues (albeit without quoting the DfE guidance), I was told that it would be positive discrimination and I could not be paid more than my fellow part-time colleagues, without disabilities. Of course, I asked that all part-time colleagues be treated the same, but with budgets tight, this wish wasn’t granted.
Positive discrimination was presented to me as a ridiculous and unfair concept, when what was clearly unjust to me was the disparity in reward for full-time and part-time staff members. To address structural ableism, we need strategies which will make all staff feel valued and safe.
Positive discrimination is often a highly contentious approach, even just in terms of addressing representation, but it is also a proven way to change the landscape of a workforce at any level. What more can teacher education courses do to diversify the teacher workforce? Could the question of positive discrimination contribute to an answer, perhaps purposely designing courses to appeal to a more diverse demographic? For 2021 entry there are 622 courses offering a part-time PGCE, the majority of these are based in schools, with just five universities offering part-time PGCE courses, with none in the north-west. Doing things differently takes time, creativity and resources, but just as our needs-must approach to facing the pandemic has proved, change can happen when enough people see it as a priority.
If you’re reading this as somebody with a disability working in Education and want to connect with me, be involved in future research and thinking, or to speak out about your own experiences, your voice can be part of the advocacy for change that we need.