Six practices to retain disabled and neurodivergent staff

There is nothing inevitable about staff with needs and disabilities leaving the profession or choosing not to enter it

There is nothing inevitable about staff with needs and disabilities leaving the profession or choosing not to enter it

28 Nov 2023, 5:00

I worked for many years in SEND roles before I received my own triad of diagnoses of autism, hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS) and ADHD.  I was an assistant headteacher, a local authority advisory teacher for autism and education national lead for a large charity.

Though undiagnosed at the time, I had suspected I was different. I had battled many health issues and injuries including gastrointestinal problems, allergies, migraines, sprained ankles and shoulder subluxation. Walking with a stick to support my left leg, my right would buckle, leading to snide comments like “Did you forget which leg was meant to be the bad one?” Opening heavy fire doors and carrying stacks of books caused further pain and injury.

Yet I was disbelieved by colleagues, medical practitioners and occupational health providers. I took early retirement at 53, but with the right support I could have remained in work.

Here are my top tips to help schools to retain staff who are neurodivergent, have long term conditions or a disability.

Be as flexible as possible

Flexibility looks different for each individual. For some, it might be part-time work or reduced hours; for others, time and space during the working day, a place to stretch or even have a quick lie down. For many people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, regular healthcare appointments may be an important part of their wellbeing. Ensure they do not feel they need to apologise for this.

Ask regularly – and listen

What kinds of aids, support, and adaptations would help the member of staff do their job? People’s needs differ and can change dramatically over time. Some disabilities have a regular and permanent impact on people’s lives, while others can wax and wane or even totally change in their presentation.

My undiagnosed conditions affected me in a number of ways. Sometimes I struggled with limb pain or stiffness. On other occasions, digestive symptoms or sensory issues were more problematic. Showing staff members an open door when it comes to talking about their changing needs will help them feel more supported.

Celebrate and play to strengths

Many disabled and neurodivergent people struggle to advocate for themselves because they are anxious about the potential consequences of ‘making a fuss’. Celebrating people for their strengths can help to build their confidence to speak up for their own needs – and those of disabled and neurodivergent students.

A ‘spiky’ profile (meaning a large difference in abilities across different kinds of tasks) is typical of autistic people. Their strengths can include strong focus, attention to detail and an ability to think outside the box. Find autistic staff members roles that play to their strengths.

Educate the educators

Visible and invisible disabilities, chronic illness and neurodivergence are all protected characteristics. Educated advocates help staff with these characteristics to feel welcome, important and understood. Strong allies on the team help to relieve burden. Conversely, it only takes one colleague to make life impossible. Ensure everyone gets the message.

Include don’t isolate

Reduced energy, chronic pain and regular appointments can be isolating of themselves. More sick days, fewer meetings and shorter hours on site mean we can miss out on important team building, key announcements and other aspects of school life. Don’t let this happen. Put processes in place to ensure we stay informed and feel part of the team.

Respect confidentiality 

Some may be very comfortable to take on a disability or neurodivergence awareness raising role within the school, including talking about their own diagnosis and how it impacts their lives. For others, it is an entirely private matter. Never pressure. We are not all wannabe influencers or activists, and nor should we have to be.

In a difficult recruitment climate, staff retention is more important than ever. Many experienced neurodivergent staff and those with long-term conditions or disabilities are quitting roles they love because they don’t feel supported.

Taking these six points into account could make the difference between someone staying or leaving. But more than that, it is fundamental to becoming the truly inclusive sector we all aspire to.

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