By Tabitha McIntosh

Chronic illness affects so many teachers in ways nobody else would truly understand. Tabitha McIntosh highlights some vital areas we should all be mindful of, when working with colleagues suffering from chronic illnesses. 

Number 1. We don’t necessarily look ill at all

See that teacher striding purposefully towards the medical room? The one with the ridiculous boots who’s still laughing at the joke a passing Year 11 just made? She looks fine, doesn’t she? That’s me last Thursday. And I am not fine at all. I’m Type 1 diabetic and my blood glucose alarm has just gone off. In five minutes I have to teach ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to a rowdy nurture group of 13 year olds, but my blood glucose is 3.1 and dropping rapidly and I have somehow forgotten to pack sugar tablets. You don’t know what that means. Almost no one I have ever worked with or taught will understand what that means. But it’s bad. Really bad. You’ll have to trust me. Which brings us to:

Number 2. We are worried that you think we’re imposters

No one understands a chronic illness better than the person who has it. If your line manager doesn’t take the time to learn about your condition and how it affects you, a chronically ill person is left in a position where they have to explain their physical symptoms over and over again in ways that invade their privacy and violate their dignity. That’s one thing for someone like me whose illness is comparatively stigma-free, but another thing entirely for teachers with a stoma, or Crohn’s Disease or Irritable Bowel syndrome or any other condition that makes emergency toileting a regular feature of work. They should never be put into a situation where they need to explain intimate aspects of their physical health to staff or students. And doing so would violate employment law, because:

Number 3. We’re classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010

Not all of us think of ourselves as disabled. Some of us reject the label altogether. But the law says we are. And therefore you are required to make reasonable accommodations for us wherever possible – the kind we routinely make for students but find much harder to make for staff. How do we know you could be doing more to keep us in the classroom? Because:

Number 4. The Covid pandemic showed us that you could have accommodated us all along

Schools are inflexible institutions in many ways: there’s no getting around the demands of the timetable, no matter how tired, punch drunk from hypoglycaemia, or brain-fogged you may be feeling. But Covid teaching demonstrated that the accommodations and adaptations that were too difficult to make for us were… not too difficult after all. Because schools made them seamlessly when able bodied people needed them. Parent’s evenings that people like me struggle to manage and recover from? They went virtual instead. Occasionally having to work from home? Isolating teachers across the country streamed into their classes and taught live lessons. After school meetings and briefings? They were broadcast and recorded so everyone could access them when and how they were able to. Which is why the most important thing you should know about your chronically ill colleagues is:

Number 5. The Covid pandemic has left us vulnerable, scared and angry

Not all risk is equal. When it comes to Covid, some people in schools are very much more equal than others. When in-person teaching resumed in Autumn 2020, my school, like so many others, went out of its way to protect me. Black and yellow caution tape was put around my desk to visually mark the two metre line of ‘safety.’ All of my students volunteered to wear masks in lessons, even though the government was advising against it.  But as cases mounted across the country, I have never been more acutely aware of my body as a liability and my job as an existential risk. Type 1 diabetics are 3.5 times more likely to die from Covid than our non-diabetic peers, and suffer serious disease complications at much higher rates. Every day felt like Russian Roulette. And as immunity starts to wane and the booster shot programme grinds slowly into action, that feeling is returning. We’re scared.

But there’s more than that. We saw people’s relief when the daily death tolls were qualified with a note about the number of victims with ‘underlying conditions.’ That’s me. That’s us. We are the people with underlying conditions. We are your friends, your colleagues, your partners, and the lady in ridiculous boots that you passed while she was striding to the medical room just before Period 5. Our lives matter too. Don’t forget that.

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