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Three adults with disabilities look back on the teachers they can’t forget – for reasons good or bad…
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Penny Pepper is a writer, performance poet and disability activist
I put it down to good genetics that I have a curious mind, especially from my father – a mind which saw learning as a pleasure, even before I went to school. Maybe this curiosity and enthusiasm attracted certain teachers who saw something in me that was worth cultivating. I was always too shy to be teacher’s pet, but I could win them over with my inexhaustible enthusiasm for English.
Two teachers in particular outshone the others. During my junior years at Hangers Wood School for the mentally and physically handicapped there was Miss Cohen. She wasn’t much taller than me, with thick curly hair, wearing a necklace that looked like a star. She used to say I was her ‘brainbox’ and would always set me challenges in composition at a higher level than others in the class.
She was always kind. In an era when kids with arthritis were banned from doing sport and PE, I would have the privilege of spending an afternoon at her flat, which to me was the epitome of grown up sophistication. Not once did she make me feel I was lesser than anyone, or suggest that my expectations in life should be low because I was disabled.
Fast forward to my teenage years, and I’m under the wing of Mrs Marsh at a hospital school where many of us were patients for up to four years. Mrs Marsh – who I’m pleased to say I’m still in contact with – was the first person to tell me I had talent as a writer. Poor Mrs Marsh must have despaired as she dragged me whining through Shakespeare and Keats, yet something connected with me, and after my English O Levels I eventually went on to do an English degree with the Open University.
Since Mrs Marsh opened that exciting possibility to me, I’ve never once felt that I wanted to be, or could be, anything other than a writer.
Mik Scarlet is a freelance journalist and broadcaster
I have to admit, I don’t have a story of an amazing teacher who filled me with confidence or who inspired me. Alas, I lived through the era when most teachers were a tad more critical of their charges – the teachers that touched my life had more of a negative impact, but one that I rebelled against to become the person I am today.
At junior school I had a teacher who believed sport was key to creating a rounded adult. And as I was useless at games, he wasn’t keen on me. He’d played cricket at national level, and once bowled an 8-year-old me a fast ball that knocked me out. His obsession with sport and dislike of me sowed the seeds of my hatred of sport, which in turn led me to fall in love with art and creative pursuits.
With this love festering in my heart, when I started at senior school I was keen to learn how to play a musical instrument. When music lessons began I tried every instrument possible, but was never chosen to take them further that the introductory month. My mum asked my teacher why, and was told I was tone deaf – though I actually later went on to write theme tunes for TV and film and play in rock bands for two decades, touring all over Europe playing to packed venues…
The next teacher to have a real impact on my future was my English teacher. During a lesson on poetry, in which we had to write a poem based on The Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home’, I had my poem chosen to be read out to the class. As my teacher finished, she peered over her glasses and told the room this was the worst example of a poem she had ever had the misfortune to read. I now make my living by writing. Enough said.
I think I’m proof that it’s not just the positive teacher who will touch your life. Fighting against those who put you down can shape your tomorrow just as strongly as living up to the expectations of the teacher who believes in you.
Martyn Sibley is founder of the online lifestyle publication, Disability Horizons
I’ve had my disability, spinal muscular atrophy, since birth. With my wheelchair, other assistive equipment and great care support, life is generally good. I live independently, run my own inclusion business and travel the world. I was recently voted Britain’s third most influential disabled person by Power 100.
Of course it’s not always easy. Back in my school days I went to a mainstream school and felt very included, but accessing PE lessons was a more difficult matter. One of my favourite learning support assistants (nowadays a TA) was called Glenda. She was like my second mum – when I got stressed or ill, or had any problems, Glenda was there for me.
In PE she’d make everything possible. We’d rally the badminton shuttlecock for ages without a net, as I couldn’t hit it high enough. We’d play wheelchair hockey at the local disability sports club. We’d participate in dance lessons. Most impressively, we did gym with my non-disabled peers.
I’ve never been tall or massively heavy, but around the age of 12 I was a chubby boy. Glenda would still get me out of the chair, on the mats, along the benches and partly up the ropes. She was an inclusion wizard.
I still think of Glenda a lot. She defines the reasons why I had a happy childhood. She was determined to only see solutions, not problems. To always be positive. To always enable me into an inclusive education. What she did played a huge part in me going on to university and what I’ve done since.
Fortunately, through Facebook I still have contact with Glenda. She recently received a Queen’s honour for her services to disabled students. Glenda thoroughly deserves this recognition, as do all the many other Glendas out there. These enablers are true everyday heroes, whether recognised by the Queen or not.
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