You can’t be what you can’t see. We need more disabled teachers, says Ruth Golding.
Education should fully represent society, and it’s important that we see more disabled teachers working in both our mainstream schools as well as specialist schools. We need more teachers from all backgrounds in the classroom and for staff in schools to feel safe and comfortable to share their disability status, so their individual needs can be met and disabled educators can have long and fulfilling careers.
There are real benefits to a more diverse school workforce. In all classrooms, and particularly in specialist schools and settings, disabled teachers can connect with pupils and advocate for them as they may have experienced and overcome some similar barriers in their own education and in life. It is also an opportunity to have early conversations about inclusivity from the outset and changing our ableist society.
I was born with congenital lymphoedema in three limbs and my face and have experienced first-hand the challenges faced by disabled people for acceptance, access and adjustment. I saw a Tweet recently from someone who suggested parking bays should only be available for disabled people between 9am and 5pm. Prejudicial statements like this assume disabled people don’t work or have a rich and fulfilling social life. Clearly there is more work to do to fight everyday stigma, bias and prejudice with disabilities.
That is why I co-founded DisabilityEd. We want to shift perceptions and be at the forefront of educating everyone to think differently about disability. We also believe that all disabled people need genuine support and accommodation so they can work in education without fear, guilt and without apology.
We’ve worked with disabled people who have experienced dismissal on ill-health grounds. Too many disabled people are overlooked when it comes to promotions, questioned about their ability to do certain roles, and have to fight to get their needs met. Others we spoke to say they feel unprotected by laws like the Equality Act. Disability intersects all other characteristics from race to gender, and that’s why all groups must work together to make changes in society. The main problem with stigma is that you can’t touch it, you can only feel it therefore it can be hard to convince society to believe it. The change will come from education, inclusion and training.
Many forget that disability is not just physical conditions, it is a wide range of conditions and ‘hidden’ disabilities such as neurodivergence, chronic illness and psychological conditions. The last census reports that 27% of the UK population are disabled and 15% of that group are working age (ONS). When it comes to ‘hidden disabilities’ there are many barriers, both real and perceived, to ‘coming out’ as disabled in the workplace and therefore they won’t let employers know about their needs.
Bringing down the wall. The Department for Education has an ambition to make the workforce in schools more diverse, it’s a goal I support. It also aims to make sure disabled educators have long and fulfilling careers in education and enjoy professional progress—so what steps can schools and individuals take to start dismantling the barriers to change?
Safe space to speak. Those who do not need any adjustment or accommodation to work do not realise how difficult making these simple requests can be. Asking for reasonable adjustments can make you feel that you are an inconvenience. It’s important that disabled teachers feel that their needs are valid, understood and heard.
Collecting disability data. Each year, schools are asked to provide information on the number of teachers that record themselves as disabled in the School Workforce Census. However, in the last census, disability data was not submitted by schools for 53% of teachers. The Department recently carried out some research to help them understand how schools currently collect data and identify ways this process can be more effective and user-friendly. If leaders don’t know who is disabled in their schools how can they meet their accessibility and support needs?
Job search. All teachers can use Teaching Vacancies, the free and easy-to-use service from the Department for Education to find their next teaching role. All teachers, including those with a disability, can find teaching and leadership roles and filter criteria to match their needs by, for example, SLT suitability, education phase, SENDCo (special educational needs and disability coordinator) roles. Roles can also be filtered by location, job title and working pattern (flexible hours, part-time). Join more than 65,000 teachers who have already signed up for job alerts so that you can stay up to date on the working opportunities out there, for when you’re ready for the next move.
Change needs to happen, we must create an environment where more disabled educators and aspiring teachers see the profession as the right fit for them. Schools and others in the education sector need to support disabled people to feel that teaching will give them the opportunity to have a valued and exciting career, in turn the more representation we see at the teaching level, the more inclusive a culture we foster for pupils.
Ruth Golding is a Network Leader and Founder of DisabilityEd and a senior leader in Plymouth. She is also the National Leader of WomenEd England and has written a chapter in the book 'Being 10% Braver' and edited the disability chapter of Diverse Educators a Manifesto.
Government site for vacancies in teaching: