Are disabled teachers getting a raw deal?

Riccardo Paffetti was left paralysed after a sledging accident but six months later he is teaching again. Other disabled teachers aren't so fortunate.
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The Independent Online

It is the weekly PE lesson for years three and four at Cobden Primary School at Farnley in inner-city Leeds. But today's session is special because, after a six-month absence, their class teacher, Riccardo Paffetti, is back with the eight- and nine-year-olds, organising a game of short cricket. Only last time he was able to run in and show them all how to bowl. Now he is doing it from a wheelchair.

On a New Year break in Switzerland, the 36-year-old sustained a spinal cord injury in a sledging accident which has left him paralysed from the waist down. He spent the next four months at the spinal injuries centre of Wakefield's Pinderfields Hospital and has just started back at work, initially two days a week, with the intention to return full-time in September. "I was getting lots of advice not to hurry," he recalls, "to take a year to get used to life in a wheelchair, but from very early on after my accident I knew I wanted to go back to work. Teaching is a part of who I am and what has happened to me hasn't changed that. So coming back seemed the natural thing to do."

It may seem natural to Paffetti, but teachers who are wheelchairusers remain very rare indeed. Andrew Stitson, head of sixth form at St Paul's Catholic College, a comprehensive in Sunbury in Surrey, returned to the classroom 17 years ago after sustaining a similar spinal cord injury to Paffetti in a road accident. "In all these years I have never met another wheelchair user either on the staff of schools where I have been teaching, or in other professional gatherings." Research on why this is the case is limited. A survey in the summer of 2008 from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers pointed to negative attitudes to disabled staff from the school authorities. It concluded: "Disabled pupils seem to fare much better than disabled staff. Schools appear to be more aware of their needs and more likely to have made changes to their policies and premises to accommodate them."

That certainly hasn't been Paffetti's experience. "When I was transferred back from Switzerland to Wakefield, my head teacher, Paula Head, was the second person to turn up at my bedside and straight from the start she made it plain she would do everything she could to make my return to work possible. When I was well enough, but still on the spinal unit, she arranged for me to visit the school to check if any building work needed doing. The door into the staff room, for example, was very narrow. I could just about get through it, but there were sparks coming off the wheels of my chair as they rubbed on the frame. By the time went back, it had been widened."

The physical lay-out of schools can be a major obstacle, though under recent disability discrimination legislation all new public buildings are now required to be accessible. Stitson suspects that for many in a similar situation to him, career choices are shaped by access issues. "I had to change subjects, because I had been head of PE and that just wasn't possible, but the main problem I faced was how hard it was to find a school that could accommodate my circumstances," says the 46-year-old father-of-three. "I wouldn't describe it as discrimination but when I was looking for jobs I always ruled myself out because of the inaccessibility of buildings. It certainly made job-hunting difficult. Even in my current school, there are areas that I can't get into."

Another factor quoted as dissuading disabled teachers is concern about the reaction of pupils to having a teacher in a wheelchair, but both Paffetti and Stitson report that any fears they may have had proved groundless. "My pupils thought it was a bit odd for about 10 minutes," says Stitson. "Then they seemed to forget. I used to tell them straight out about why I was in a chair when I started with a new class, but quite often now I find myself not raising it because they don't seem to see it as an issue."

Paffetti has been surprised and pleased by how easily his own children have adjusted to the physical change they have witnessed in their teacher. "They began by asking lots of questions about how it had happened and if it hurt. One of the hardest was to try to find a way of explaining that there was nothing wrong with my legs and that the problem was with my spinal cord in my back. But once we'd got that out of the way, I've found they go out of their way to accommodate me. The tables they work at, for instance, are too low for me to get my wheelchair underneath but without me asking they just turn their chairs round to face me when we are having a group or one-to-one conversation."

Alex Rankin, campaigns manager at the national spinal injuries charity, Aspire, believes that such experiences point to a broader truth – that exposing children in the classroom to wheelchair users in this everyday way will have a knock-on effect in transforming society's attitudes to disability in the future. "Understanding from a young age that being disabled is not the barrier that many perceive it to be," he says, "will help to reduce the prejudice that so many disabled people face today."

Paffetti recalls, in this context, an incident that happened in his classroom just days before. "There has been another teacher covering my class while I was away. We were side by side at the front of the class when one of the girls came up. "How are you going to tell the two of us apart?" I asked her in a jokey way. She thought about it for a minute and then replied, pointing at my colleague, "because he's very tall". No mention of my chair. It wasn't the answer I'd expected."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle, though, is for the individuals themselves to have faith that it is possible. Paffetti recalls that when he was on the spinal unit, he was one of the few who was focusing on getting back to work as soon as possible.

"Most of the people there felt that their life before their accident was over and that holding down a job was now a distant prospect. But when I am in the classroom and teaching, it feels just as good as it ever did. It's like I am re-immersed in the life I had before and I just forget I am in a chair."

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