How teaching online supports teachers with a disability.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Summary:

  • Is teaching online better for teachers?
  • Does teaching have an accessibility problem?
  • Why does teaching need to be more accessible?
  • How can we make all teaching more accessible?

As a distance education teacher who has taught many students in many contexts online, it truly is a different beast. You have a wide variety of students who choose to attend online schools for so many different reasons. You also have whole demographics of students who are underrepresented in our online schools. We have to develop new skills and pedagogy, as well as basic communication strategies with students, parents, and other teachers. This is before we even get to any of the additional complications of the tech. 

I could have guessed all of this from a bit of research. Before getting a job in a distance education school, I knew that this job would be complex. One thing that I wasn’t expecting when I started teaching online, was that I would also be working with a more complex range of teachers. Teaching online has the benefit of working better for a lot of our teachers with disabilities, not only our students.

Is teaching online better for teachers?

In my second year at this distance education school, I met a teacher called Greg. He was a relatively young man in his mid-thirties, and he was incredibly supportive while I was just starting to find my feet. I was teaching his subject for the first time and I was worried that he would be impatient with me as he had done if for at least a decade. He was so patient and pushed me to try new things and develop my own resources while always offering his as a base or fall-back. 

Teacher with a disability helping students work in computers.
Teaching online can be a great option for teachers who struggle to access teaching in the classroom.

Towards the end of the year, we got all of the students from both of our classes in to do a practical lesson. I had not realised until that point that he was legally blind. He warned me before the students got there that he would need me to hang around and help him all day because he was not going to be able to recognise individual students’ faces. He was also not going to be able to monitor what was going on at the back of the room if he was standing up the front teaching. We had a wonderful day, and the students got a lot out of it. I got a lot out of it, too. 

Greg had taught face-to-face for years before his vision suddenly started deteriorating. He thought that he would have to give up his job and find a new career. That was until he had the opportunity to work in distance education. He interacts with his students primarily online or via phone, and has all the tech needed to do this seamlessly. He is a fantastic teacher with a lot of experience and skill, but he could not teach effectively in a face-to-face classroom.

Does teaching have an accessibility problem?

I didn’t even realise that teaching had a problem with accessibility. I never even considered that teachers could have an unusually low rate of disability compared to the general population. After all, you rarely see it! You do regularly see teachers, particularly older teachers, have mobility aids. What you don’t typically see are teachers who are deaf, vision impaired, or in wheelchairs unless you are at a specialist school. 

I didn’t notice this was a problem while I was working in mainstream schools. I only noticed it when I was suddenly working in a distance education setting and you did see teachers with these disabilities. Teaching is a very demanding profession, and most of these teachers had bad experiences in face-to-face schools in the past. A lot of this comes down to behaviour management; if you can’t see or move as well as your students, you are often at a disadvantage. Distance education had given them the opportunity to be teachers and do the work that they love.

Why does teaching need to be more accessible?

It is vital that we have a variety of teachers to teach our children. Teachers are naturally role models, and the greater the variety of backgrounds, cultures, and personalities in our teachers, the more likely it is that every student will find a teacher that they can relate to. 

Teacher teaching a small group of students how to play music.
Our students benefit when they can relate to their teachers. This includes students with a disability.

Teaching has many issues with excluding certain people from becoming teachers. For many disabled teachers, teaching can be a safety risk. The benefit of teaching online is that these teachers have the opportunity to help their students and change lives, but also our students (who are often some of the most vulnerable) get to see someone like them finding success.

How can we make all teaching more accessible?

There is research suggesting that many people with disabilities do not want to become teachers. This is due to their own poor experiences at school. Those people with disabilities who do become teachers often resist teaching in the same style that they were taught.

Teaching online is one way that we can make the profession more accessible. We can put as many ramps on our buildings as we want, but a key part of accessibility is in space and process design. Greg, who I mentioned above, is still fighting to have chairs in the school that are a different colour to the carpet.

We also have teachers who cannot use the provided cars for visiting students as we only have standard sedans, and there is barely enough room to fit a person in the garage next to them yet alone a mobility aid as well. While accessibility was considered in designing the building, it needs to be an ongoing consideration in decisions made in schools. 

The other key thing that we need to consider is accessibility in processes. Greg would easily be able to manage a class that was limited to ten or so students in a smaller classroom. Required yard duty is difficult for many with mobility limitations, and perhaps yard duties should be considered as a part of your load so that they can be swapped for other duties. 

I don’t know when or if any of this might change, but currently, we are severely limiting who can become a teacher. This can only be a disservice to our students as they grow up and learn how to be citizens of this world.

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