Rethinking My Place in Schools: A Teacher with Disabilities

This school year marks yet another where I start at a new school. It’s the sixth school I’ve worked at in ten years, and that… feels heavy. It feels like I’ve worked in too many places and haven’t been able to actually find a place to stay put, to be part of the community. And when I finally find a place in the community, I feel like I have to leave for some reason that’s usually related to the school’s administration: obvious mental abuse that they force the staff to endure, genuine corruption, and wilful ineptitude.

Perhaps it’s also worth mentioning that I’m a teacher who is “special needs” (a term that I loathe with every fiber of my being). I have ADHD. I’m dyslexic. I have an audio-processing disorder. I also deal with depression and anxiety. Accommodations for a range of disabilities are almost never met for any students in the building, and they’re definitely not there for teachers who require them.

So unlike neurotypical (and able-bodied) teachers, these are concerns that I often put front-and-center. What are we doing to ensure all students’ needs are met? What are we doing to improve access for all students (especially those often overlooked in the school)?

And the answer is… not a lot. The COVID-19 pandemic has really made people more aware of the inequitable situation for disabled students everywhere. In the United States, we’ve seen 15-year old Grace, a black girl with ADHD, who was arrested (not supported) for not doing her homework; a week later, Mary Ellen Brennan, an irresponsible judge in Michigan, refused to free her because she “would be doing [her] a disservice.” Not once was she given the support she needed to succeed. This is probably one of the most extreme of recent examples, and it’s unlikely that Grace would’ve been detained had she been white.

There’ve been other cases in the United States (like a teacher who abused an autistic student last year because he wouldn’t do what she wanted), but it’s not limited to that one country. In Australia, a 2019 government report showed that at least a third of disabled students had either been restrained or secluded while at school (not to mention almost half were bullied by their peers and the school staff). Only a year earlier, in Victoria (the state where Melbourne is), ABC reported that disabled students were discouraged from enrolling or turned away from mainstream schools. A teacher in Somerset (UK) was banned for abusing disabled students earlier this year, Slovakia was still “struggling” with segregating Roma and disabled children in schools in 2018 (and based on personal experience, still is), the European Schools (which EU staff can use for free) denied the enrollment of boy with a learning disability three times in 2018, disabled students in Canada face a higher risk of abuse than their non-disabled peers, and it was found earlier this year that nearly one in three disabled children in New Zealand were denied enrollment at schools.

There are way too many examples.

And all this without mentioning the state of the buildings for some schools, potential access to interpreters and assistants, and the technologies or materials they choose to implement. A lot of disabled students have been heavily impacted by a lack of inclusion in their classes because of COVID-19. Many of these places are the most physically, mentally, and socially inaccessible places I’ve ever experienced. It’s beyond ridiculous.

But all of this is literally focusing on just the students. If this is how we’re treating our students, how is it that we treat their teachers? For starters, where are the disabled teachers?

For a lot of my students, I have been the only disabled teacher they’ve ever encountered in their schooling; I’m usually the only disabled teacher in the room, and my disabilities aren’t immediately obvious. Many people call them “hidden disabilities” or “invisible disabilities;” I prefer to call them “overlooked disabilities,” putting the onus on someone else. For me, they’re neither hidden nor invisible; people usually recognise there’s “something wrong” with me (and that is how they phrase it, not me), but they can’t quite put their finger on what it is.

When I ask for accommodations that help me to be better at my job, people often tell me that I’m “being difficult.” I’ve asked for my own classroom, office space, or to share an office with someone who really likes being quiet so that I could sit down and concentrate on my work while having as few distractions as possible; I’m told this is unreasonable and that I should “find my own quiet place to work” (which are often student areas that are traversed by students and in hallways). I’ve asked people to make sure I have a week’s notice of events or changes so that I can plan accordingly (and get myself used to the idea of it); they tell me this is inflexible and that I should adapt easier. I’ve asked people to stop using two-column handouts for lots of text because I get confused about the flow of text; they tell me they’re “conserving paper” (because apparently it’s too difficult to use one column and print it double-sided). I’ve asked for a different (but similarly priced) set of organisation tools for my classroom to keep myself on track only to be told that “others might get jealous” and that “everyone needs to be the same;” I was told if I wanted the system (rather than needed it), I’d have to buy it myself.

And these are the small things I’ve asked for. I’ve never had the courage to ask for anything else because I can’t even get the basics.

We spend what amounts to zero time thinking about disabled teachers, but we do exist. Frustratingly, the few times I see calls for more disabled educators in schools, it’s always in relation to “special education” teachers. (By the way, I hate that phrase, too.) Why don’t we consider that disabled teachers need to be everywhere? In all the subjects? That we’re not relegated to caring only about disability because we can also love and be passionate about history, science, maths, or whatever while also bringing our own perspective to it?

I am that person, but I mask that when I interview at schools. I have to because I usually won’t get the job (because I’m “too difficult to deal with”). When I enter the school, I tell people so they know what to expect; my colleagues expect me to be an encyclopaedia on developmental disabilities, as if my being ADHD means I know everything about autism or OCD. (Note: It doesn’t. My being ADHD doesn’t even mean I know everything about being ADHD.) They expect me to be their go-to for everything “special education” because I’m often the only person who seems to care or advocate for the needs of disabled students in my schools.

Not to mention, it’s exhausting. It takes such a toll on my health. And mentally? There are days where, even if nothing really bad happened, I’m still constantly frustrated by the people I work with because my brain will cycle through things that they’ve said: comments about me, comments about students, or passive-aggressive grievances about how difficult a situation (involving a disabled person) is. And, to top it off, as a person who was diagnosed in an entirely different country, my diagnosis doesn’t travel across borders like I do; I can’t even get treatment for it without being re-evaluated because my evaluation isn’t considered valid. 

And I’m not alone.

While this is one of the many reasons I want to stay in the teaching profession, it’s also one that makes me want to leave the teaching profession. Despite all the changes to disability policies and laws, our governments and societies are still doing disabled people everywhere a massive disservice.

I want to stay for kids like my friend’s daughter: a dyslexic person who said she “couldn’t read books,” but started trying after she had me, a dyslexic language and literature teacher who loves books. I want to stay for kids like one of my students last year: a boy who was described as lazy by everyone else but was inspired to research ADHD more after hearing about how it affected me and recognising elements of it in himself (and then working with me to figure out which coping strategies helped and which ones didn’t).

Kids need to see us. They need to see all of us. We need more disabled teachers in every school in every subject and every position.

But this also makes me want to leave schools, to stop working in them and find another path in education because I don’t believe in any of this; I don’t believe things will change through the ‘normal’ channels (because they’ve already failed us before). And I don’t want to continue wrecking my health for a system that doesn’t care about people like me.

(And, y’know, we really need to abolish schools. Please.)