The hidden challenges faced by disabled teachers

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Determined to lift the lid on disability, teacher Valenee Gosine discusses the impact of her GNE Myopathy diagnosis upon her profession with Karen Olney.

There’s a resounding sense of calm in the classroom as the teacher moves from student to student to assist with their work. The after-school tuition group at Kip McGrath is quietly focused yet brimming with positive energy. The teacher, Valenee Gosine puts children at ease and cannot resist cracking the odd joke. ‘It is important’ she says, ‘that they are not in the same classroom set up as they have been all day. We want them to look forward to coming for the extra lessons without them feeling like they are back at school.’

It is apparent that Valenee has a great rapport with her students and that this is an environment that she thrives in. Yet there is something quite unique about this classroom. Valenee is, by all accounts, a rarity. She is a teacher with a disability. A 2016 government census implied that less than 1% of teachers, at the time, were disabled. Teaching with a disability is uncommon and it is imperative to ask why this is the case?

Valenee was diagnosed with a rare muscle-wasting disease called GNE Myopathy at the age of 26. The condition is genetic and debilitating and there is no known cure. She has a bilateral foot drop and suffers from loss of muscle in her legs, meaning that she often uses a mobility walker for support. Valenee describes the muscle loss as similar to having ‘bags of flour’ tied around her ankles. Mobility is a struggle, and the condition has robbed her of the freedoms that others take for granted.

Children, she says, are much more accepting than adults. ‘Most children, when they first meet me, stare because they can’t understand why I walk the way I do.

Some ask, ‘what’s wrong with your legs?’

I have always been upfront with the children and tell them I have a muscle wasting condition. The muscles in my legs are weak and that’s why I walk this way. They have always been intrigued and most fully understand, once I have explained. I don’t blame them for wondering. I would if I was them.’

When it comes to teaching, it is clear to see that Valenee’s disability does not impact her ability to teach. The children in the classroom are respectful and unfazed. They know to pull in their chair if she needs to pass with her walker.

‘My condition will gradually decline, and affect my whole body over time,’ she says, ‘but when I began my degree I was as able as anybody else.’ With GNE Myopathy striking during her early years of teaching, Valenee began to find that the physical challenge of a fast-paced environment became increasingly difficult. Walking around the building, carrying books and even photocopying work required additional support.

‘I had a whole host of both negative and positive experiences with my condition. In one school I asked if I could swap a windy playtime duty for another day, where I felt I could be steadier on my feet. But I was told in no uncertain terms, that no, that was my allotted time and duty.’

We are at a point in time where we are tearing down the barriers of stigma. Mental health, sexuality and disability are becoming topics that are openly discussed and widely acknowledged. The Equality Act of 2010 protects disabled children from discrimination and schools are now required to accommodate a child with a disability. However, teachers do not always feel this same level of support. Despite having a positive experience in her NQT year where the school installed handrails, gave Valenee extra support for school trips and aid with daily tasks, support was not always so forthcoming in other schools. This led Valenee to leave mainstream schools and look for other teaching routes, which, fortunately, she found.

A child’s future is shaped by what they learn and the experiences that they obtain at school. Good teachers, and bad, are remembered for years to come. A great teacher can become an inspiration for life, and what better inspiration is there than seeing an adult overcome physical and mental hurdles to teach others. Valenee is teaching her children, not only lessons in the curriculum but also equally important lessons in resilience, compassion and empathy. She wants to encourage others with disabilities not to be put off their career path and encourage schools to listen to their needs. A great school, she says, is a supportive and encouraging employer, and one that she has found with Kip McGrath.

A recent study by Cambridge University, ‘The Work Lives of Disabled Teachers’, spoke in detail to a small group of disabled teachers and called for an ‘urgent change’ in their treatment and support. They found that these teachers often felt lonely, isolated and misunderstood by their employers. The research states that there are several safeguards and provisions that could be implemented to assist disabled teachers, including college training and support networks.

Clearly, broader research and action is needed. Schools have come so far in recent generations, supporting disabilities and actively helping in diagnosing children with learning needs. However, there appears to remain a huge gap in understanding when it comes to their teachers.

When asked what Valenee hopes to achieve by speaking out about her experience she says, ‘I believe my disability does not define me as a person. I would like my story among others, to reach professionals in education and encourage others. Despite our disabilities, we can still have a career and use our skills with the help, support and understanding of others around us. Everyone deserves a chance to shine in their chosen passion and profession.’

Valenee Gosine
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Valenee Gosine, is a qualified primary school teacher, 37 years old living with a physical disability. She has a very rare muscle wasting condition called GNE Myopathy. She writes to encourage teachers with a physical disability that they can still teach as long as they have the right support in place. 

Karen Olney
+ posts

Karen Olney is a freelance Journalist

https://linkedin.com/in/karen-olney-9a518ba3/

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