Schools are legally obliged to provide equality of opportunity for all pupils. This means that schools must not discriminate against a pupil with a disability by giving them a level of teaching, support and access to facilities that would put them at a disadvantage to their peers.
Ensuring this doesn't happen may require the school to make some reasonable adjustments so pupils with arthritis can participate fully in school life.
Painful and stiff joints can make movements slower or more difficult. Ask your pupil sensitively if they’d like any modifications put in place.
They might be worried about being singled out for special treatment, so be careful to help practically as much as possible and without making them feel awkward or upset at unwanted attention, especially when they're starting at a new school or college.
Be flexible about your pupil arriving late or leaving early and allow extra time or help for moving between lessons. This is more of an issue in secondary schools and colleges, where lessons are often in different rooms.
Where possible, arrange for lessons to be in downstairs classrooms. If this isn't possible, let them use lifts where available. If necessary, give them a lift pass. Think about access for wheelchairs and crutches where necessary.
Give your pupil a ground-floor locker or let them leave textbooks in a secure place. If possible, give them two sets of books, one for school and one for home, so they don't have to carry them around.
Be flexible about uniform rules where there are specific needs, for example with footwear.
Give them a pass which explains any special provisions to avoid them having to repeatedly explain their needs or get in trouble. This could include, for example, a toilet pass, late pass, shoe pass, lift pass and inside break pass.
Let your pupil get up and walk around in class to help reduce stiffness. If they feel self-conscious about this, you could give them a task to do, such as taking a letter to the school office if it’s not too far away.
Have a quiet word with them if you think they seem uncomfortable and ask if there’s anything they’d like to do.
Using special equipment and modifications
Specially adapted equipment may be useful. Desks and chairs could be raised or lowered to provide the best seating and working position. Your pupil may want a chair during assembly or carpet time, however, if they feel self-conscious this should be done with tact. Back rests, foot supports and book rests could all help.
Providing your pupil with special thick pens and/or pencils might help them to write easier.
Install a rail in toilets or a banister on both sides of stairs.
Think creatively about adapting activities in PE and drama to make it less demanding for your pupil and encourage them to join in.
You can get advice and guidance around these issues from your pupil, their parents and their physiotherapist or occupational therapist.
Arranging school trips
When arranging a school trip you need to carefully consider the needs of the young person with arthritis. Visit the area before the trip to reduce risk and assess access.
Speak with your pupil and their parents before the trip to tell them about the timetable and find out what they hope to get involved with. Talking about medication and any other medical information would help.
Be creative with the activities and try to make your pupil feel like they're not missing out. If there are physical activities, including long walks, try to plan alternatives.
Make sure that comfortable transport with regular breaks is provided. The accommodation should have good access and possibly either bedrooms on the ground floor or lifts if needed.
Young people with arthritis will need time out of school for regular hospital appointments to monitor their condition. Some may occasionally stay in hospital for tests or treatment, or occasionally for surgery if their condition is severe.
If your pupil does need to spend time in hospital, a shared timetable can be useful. Your school can work with the hospital school to arrange a part-time schedule.
For example, your pupil could have a mixture of being taught in school and through home teaching from a local service provider. This would stop them missing too much work and being left behind, and would let them see friends.
Hospital or home tutors will organise work from the National Curriculum. Ideally this should be arranged with your school to make sure your pupil can carry on with what they've been learning. If possible, arrange for your pupil to take work into hospital or home.
If your pupil has been very ill and in hospital for long periods, a discharge-planning meeting or case conference may be held. It’s very helpful if a member of school staff can take part in these meetings.
Hospital schools don’t cater for post-16 education, so if you're a sixth-form or college tutor you'll need to be directly involved with your pupil, their family and rheumatology team, particularly if your pupil is admitted to an adult hospital.
Making arrangements for examinations and course work
Some young people may need extra consideration for examinations, such as extra time or the use of a computer or scribe. This will almost certainly involve being in a separate room under exam conditions.
These accommodations need to be requested well in advance from the relevant examination board. Your pupil's rheumatology team will probably need to provide a letter of support.
If your pupil finds writing and typing difficult they may struggle with course work. Talk to them about this in plenty of time before deadlines and see if there is anything they need that the school can provide. Speech recognition software on a laptop may really help the young person when they're working on essays and course work.
Ensuring that a form tutor or another assigned teacher regularly checks that the pupil is up to date with school work, course work deadlines and revision timetables would be a very good idea. Encouraging the child to raise any concerns they have about exams and course work, in a timely fashion, is important.
Giving career advice
Most young people with arthritis do well academically and go on to college or university. Securing a job may be more difficult, however, due to many factors, including:
- limited work experience
- careers advisors and potential employers having unnecessarily low aspirations for the young person.
Improving employability is essential. Teachers and careers advisors can play a key role in this. Early work experience which matches your pupil’s strengths and ensures success can:
- boost their self-confidence
- improve their CV
- help them realise their strengths and difficulties
- give them a realistic insight into the world of work.
Careers advisors in schools and colleges can seek additional support from the rheumatology team.
Good careers advice for young people with arthritis will be a realistic and positive focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t do.
Encouraging your pupil to be ambitious and confident is important. There will be life skills that the young people will most probably have developed from their condition - these may include:
- being organised
- being determined to overcome challenges and obstacles
- showing resilience
- thinking creatively to overcome problems.
It would be good to stress to the young people that these are skill sets that could be transferrable to the world of work which they should tell future employers about.