People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States (1 in 4 adults, or 61 million people, live with a disability). However, educators with disabilities are rarely a topic of discussion.
With the constant emphasis in today’s public debate on diversity, equity and inclusion, it is logical to recognize that one of the categories of this group is that of teachers with disabilities, who fall into the field of education and are doing their job as very effective educators. Even though many people know someone with a disability, it may not occur to them that a teacher might have a disability.
“Educators with disabilities often bring an additional expertise to the job: empathy. They understand very well what students with disabilities and students who have difficulties in school go through.
The social assumption is that all teachers are intelligent and not disabled. Nevertheless, it is not the case. All state-licensed teachers are required to pass exams to qualify for their state-issued credentials. It is not well known that there are “disabled test takers” who qualify for and receive test accommodations including extra time, double time and a separate room to minimize distractions during their Praxis or other state-required exams. Contrary to the belief that they could not pass these grueling exams, they succeed and become highly qualified graduate teachers alongside their non-disabled peers.
In fact, educators with disabilities often bring an additional expertise to the job: empathy. They understand only too well what students with disabilities go through and students who struggle in school socially and with their studies. They are powerful role models and can offer advice and assistance through a personal lens. And these educators may offer other talents such as being especially good with technology,
having used various programs or devices for years, and are able to more easily integrate technology into their teaching.
But what school district would hire a teacher with a disability? Due to privacy laws such as HIPAA, no employer can review or access the medical records of its employees, including teacher candidates. It is illegal for any human resources department of any school district to probe, request, or disclose an applicant’s knowledge or disability status.
When a teacher with a disability applies for a job, he does not indicate his disability on his CV. They list their qualifications and credentials. Additionally, research shows that invisible disabilities, such as learning disabilities, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder),
Asperger’s syndrome, and other recognized autism spectrum disorders, can be concealed in interviews. This does not necessarily include people with intellectual disabilities. Thus, in recent years, candidates with a degree in teaching with disabilities have been hired for positions in the competitive fields of early childhood, elementary, secondary and higher education. To the surprise of many able-bodied educators, sometimes a teacher candidate with a disability is more qualified and hired for the position than them.
Although there have been policy initiatives to increase the employment of people with disabilities, advocacy organizations such as the National Disability Organization continue their work to ensure equality for all workers with disabilities. This is especially evident with the effort to eliminate the 14(c) sub-minimum wage. Thousands of Californians work under the federal 14(c) program, which allows employers to pay employees less than minimum wage. Removing it is key to helping qualified educators with physical disabilities overcome barriers to obtaining employment. However, even if educators with disabilities obtain paid employment, they are often restricted in their placement and have limited opportunities for career advancement.
This issue not only impacts employers of educators with disabilities, but also communities of parents and students. Would the value of a school district diminish if it employed educators with disabilities? If students learn that their teacher has a disability, how these children learn to react influences their attitude and treatment towards everyone they meet who is “different”. These are just a few factors to consider in having educators with disabilities in our schools.
These challenges need to be recognized by all school districts, as there is still a widely held belief that educators cannot have disabilities. There is still a great need to fight against the social stigma associated with disabilities, namely that a disabled educator has a lesser intellect. There is definitely a need to raise awareness of excellent educators with disabilities within the workforce. Including educators with disabilities as role models for students increases their empathy, encourages them to take on challenges, and reinforces their belief that all educators with disabilities are valued.
Toby Tomlinson Baker, member of United Teachers Los Angeles, Ph.D., teaches special education at Los Angeles Unified School District and is an assistant lecturer at CSU Los Angeles. She received the Harrison Sylvester Prize for his research from Learning Disabilities Association of America and was CHADD’s (Children and Adults with ADHD) 2018 Educator of the Year.