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Lessons Learned: Accommodating and Retaining Educators with Disabilities

Find out about the role workplace accommodations play in retaining teachers with disabilities.

Dianna Ivey is a teacher at Manchester, VT’s Elementary Middle School, which has 385 students in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade. She has been teaching for 20 years and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) 14 years ago. Since then, the nature of Dianna’s disability has evolved, as has the education field. A greater understanding of the importance of accommodating educators with disabilities has allowed her to remain at work and be successful, including during a global pandemic, when educators were critically needed.

When first diagnosed, Dianna did not feel comfortable disclosing her disability. She was concerned that people might think she could no longer do her job. Dianna worked closely with her immediate teaching team to negotiate informal accommodations as needed. She worked out arrangements with other teachers in her grade and subject, which usually involved trading one responsibility for another. For example, Diana would take on planning large events like moving up ceremonies, while her co-workers might take a larger share of more physically demanding tasks. 

By 2011, Dianna realized that her MS was progressing and she needed additional accommodations to remain on the job, which she discussed with her building administrator and district superintendent. They held a meeting with an advocate from the state education department and created a plan for providing Dianna accommodations. Dianna reflected, “I really felt like it was a constructive process. It wasn't just this is what I need, and you have to do this. But the superintendent and the administrator were saying, well, these are the job tasks that we need for you to complete. So we came up with a variety of solutions that could work within the framework that we had here at school.”

Some of the accommodations that Dianna found effective include flexibility of schedule and tasks. She is most productive in the morning, so she completes tasks like grading and sending emails before school, rather than at the end of the day. Dianna gets much of her work accomplished before students even enter the building. She also worked with her colleagues to create a solution for recess duty, which can exacerbate symptoms of MS resulting from fatigue and outdoor temperature extremes. In exchange for other teachers taking her outdoor recess shifts, Dianna hosts an indoor recess in her classroom each day. Other teachers and building leaders appreciate this exchange, which has been very beneficial for students.

Because MS is an autoimmune disorder, Dianna had concerns related to COVID-19. Students and staff were encouraged to adhere to guidelines like wearing masks, social distancing, and getting the vaccine when available. Because the school community cared about keeping Dianna and other at-risk people safe, COVID precautions brought them closer together. That said, many of Dianna’s accommodations remained unchanged during the pandemic.

Dianna has found that being honest with her students is helpful, “By me being able to have these accommodations, it creates a role model for students to say that 'I know I might have my challenges, but I'm looking at this person who is overcoming them every day.’” Diana encourages people with disabilities not to fear disclosure if they would like to request an accommodation and advises working with school leadership and union representatives to reach mutually beneficial arrangements. “When I think about teachers and accommodations, something that really comes up for me is that we need a strong and diverse workforce and that if people are not scared to come into a workforce, if they know that they'll be accepted, we will get a stronger workforce.”

The school district engaged in an open and reciprocal dialogue with Dianna, to develop accommodations that allow her to meet her responsibilities as an educator and manage symptoms at the same time. All of Dianna’s accommodations were achieved at no cost to the school district, and were often extremely simple things, like leaving a wheelchair near the printer so she can sit while making copies. In turn, the school retained a valuable teacher who positively impacts the lives of her students, and the whole school community.