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Disability: Secret Shame or Superpower?

  November 9, 2016   

By Tallulah Bygraves, Selection Manager at Teach First and former Science Teacher

Disclosure is an ugly term. Even the word hints at a dirty secret. And then there is the stigma attached to those little square boxes, seemingly blatant in their attempt to pigeon hole and stereotype. I know why so many applicants choose to tick the ‘prefer not to say’ box – I was one of them.

It seemed unreasonable to me that I was expected to serve up my secret shame for inspection, having barely come to terms with it myself; I imagined some faceless prospective employer googling my disability ‘dyspraxia’ and drawing assumptions about my ability to do the job based on a list of signs and symptoms - many of which did not apply to me. Even when I tried to open my mind to the fact that my disclosure might be used positively, the thought of someone giving me a chance by virtue of my misfortune, smacked of pity. If I made a success of my life I wanted to do it despite my disability, not as a result of it.

"Prefer not to say"

I went through the Teach First assessment process ‘preferring not to say’ at every juncture, and I was made an offer. I got placed as a Science teacher in the East Midlands, at a school in a small ex-mining community where over 35% of pupils were classed as having Special Educational Needs (SEN). My pupil’s learning difficulties, the environment they had grown up in and the level of support offered to them greatly differed from my experience. My disability had been undiagnosed throughout my school days but time was invested in recognising my strengths and developing my confidence and this had allowed me to overcome my difficulties regardless of the fact that they had no name attached to them.

No one expected much of the pupils I taught and very few teachers had time left to invest in them, as a non-specialist school, efforts were concentrated on the pupils without disabilities who were considered more likely to achieve at a grade C or above. Those with mild disabilities were generally placed in bottom sets and those with severe disabilities were lumped into one class dispassionately referred to as the ‘S-band’. I arrived at the school after 6 weeks intensive training and was handed my timetable. Despite the greater experience of my colleagues I had been assigned three out of the five S-band classes.

I began to wear my disability with pride

In my first term I struggled with behaviour and engagement; more than 70% of pupils in my Year 9 S-band class had been diagnosed with complex social, emotional and behavioural disorders. I went to my Head of Department for advice; he told me not to waste my efforts trying to plan lessons for the S-band, but to “put on a You-Tube video or give them something to colour in.” A rush of anger overpowered my usual deference and I found myself saying “I’m S-E-N” out loud. The silence and confusion that followed made me realise the importance of those words. I began to wear my disability with pride and to disclose it openly to other colleagues, my pupils, their parents and anyone else who would listen. Other members of staff tilted their heads as if they had missed something, it didn’t fit with their image of me as Teach First participant and Imperial graduate. Parents looked relieved and a little more hopeful; their guard, which had been raised by my privileged Southern accent, began to fall away. The reaction of my pupils was far less satisfying. Most of them flatly refused to believe I had a disability, they had never heard of dyspraxia, and besides, how could I have a disability, I was a teacher.

For the first time I began to spend my working hours drawing attention to my difficulties rather than away from them. I stopped making excuses for walking into desks or tripping over power cables. I explained the lengths I had to go to to overcome disorganisation and short term memory loss and I shared the strategies I had developed to help me to get by. Slowly my pupils started to come to my lessons on time, instead of calling me mardy they decided I was ‘actually all-reet’ (high praise from a teenager). I constantly reinforced the faith I had in them to surpass their expectations and I tried to get them to see that their disability did not have to be a barrier to success. This approach was not remarkable, except for the fact that I spoke from experience, and just like that, my secret shame became my superpower.

My superpower

In my current role as Selection Manager at Teach First I am reminded of the flipside of failure every day. One of our competencies is Resilience; it can be a hard characteristic for graduates to evidence, many students have never had to overcome adversity at such an early stage of their lives. The Teach First Leadership Development Programme is challenging, the honesty of school children is both a blessing and a curse; feedback is usually immediate, it is often brutal, and it tends to be delivered when you are at your lowest ebb. The ability to shake it off and start again the next day is essential. As selectors we cannot infer that candidates will be able to cope with the demands of the role based on their successes alone. People who live with a disability have often experienced failure of one type or another, they have had to put themselves out of their comfort zone and although they may not consider their disability as a significant barrier, they are likely to have shown determination and tenacity in overcoming the specific challenges it presented.

Finally, if teaching has taught me the benefit of being open about my disability, then recruitment has reinforced the necessity of those little square boxes. Diversity is often a target imposed on organisations by external regulators. At Teach First it is so much more than that. The pupils that our teachers will go on to inspire need role models that they can identify with, whether this be based on gender, race, social background, sexual orientation or being labelled with a disability, they need to know that success is a possibility for them as much as anyone else. My early paranoia that someone might scrutinise my disability before making a decision to pass or fail my form, was entirely unfounded. Teach First, and the vast majority of recruiters, blind-screen application forms. This means that all information about a candidate, other than their qualifications and their answers, are hidden from view from assessors. All demographic information is immediately rerouted to a separate database that only gets accessed retrospectively to help us track our progress to diversity ideals; these have been set to ensure that the diversity of our teachers reflects the diversity of our schools and the communities they serve.

I’m sure my pupils taught me more than I taught them in that first year, but perhaps the most important thing I learnt was that success could occur as a result of my disability, and not in spite of it.

Tallulah Bygraves

Selection Manager at Teach First and former Science Teacher

These stories are tagged with: strengths strengths employment employment Teach First Teach First dyspraxia dyspraxia