Teaching with a disability – Part 1

In 2012, I moved into teaching in the further education sector. Perhaps “stumbled” is the more correct term. Either way, it forced me to face new challenges related to my disability that I previously hadn’t considered, along with a few fears. So what were they and how did I cope?

“Why do you wear hearing aids?”

In nearly three academic years, dozens of classes and hundreds of students, I’ve only heard this question about 4 times.

Shortly before my first term, I’d taken the bold step of having the last remnants of my long hair cut. I’ll cover the importance of this in a future post but, for now, consider this: I started growing my hair in tandem with my awkward, self-conscious teenage years and had grown used to having my ears hidden. Suddenly, I would be facing a roomful of judgemental young minds with my worst anxieties exposed. I hadn’t thought about this when I took the post but I could feel my nerves shaking when I first stepped in front of those gazing eyes. Teaching non-stop for two hours and knowing a subject inside out? Easy. Answering a simple question about yourself that forces you to confront your disability? That’s another story.

Only, it wasn’t like that. It was a full year until a girl in an English class asked about my hearing aids. I distinctly remember it was after I’d just set them their first activity and I was sitting down to do my register. I felt something inside me stir awake and push a weight to my chest. As I tried to gather my words in a panic, I heard the greatest response I’ll ever hear:

“Why do you think he wears them, dickhead? Don’t be so rude.”

The irony of that statement is not lost on me. More importantly: the anxiety goblin in my chest went back to sleep and hasn’t woken up since. In one instant, a 16-year-old boy poured cold water over anxieties that had been working their way into my brain for the past decade. I didn’t even need to say anything. Other students apologised on the girl’s behalf. I took the register, told her it was ok to ask and gave her a brief explanation. She said she didn’t want to offend but just wanted to know and thanked me for not making her feel stupid.

Unfounded fears

That moment taught me that anyone who asks a question about a disability isn’t being rude or judgemental. They want to learn and to understand what makes you different to them. Each and every time a student has asked the same question, I’ve seen the same response.

Older generations chastise young people for being ignorant and unworldly. They’re plugged into their phones, constantly tapping away and spouting meaningless drivel. I’m not arguing that. However, I’ve never caught a student staring at my ears but I’ve caught other staff do it. Who’s really ignorant?

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