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Cheryl Alexander teaching
Cheryl Alexander

Cheryl teaches at York High School, where she is accompanied by her dog Orca who provides support with her disability

Cheryl tells us, in her own words, about her early inspirations, experiences of a university lab, her career and her dog, Orca. 

Early inspirations

I originally wanted to be an engineer like my father. I have always liked building and fixing. This led me to an interest in all things mathematical and technical. Studying A-level sciences steered me more towards an interest in chemistry.

There were quite a few fantastic teachers, without whom I would never have gone to university, let alone studied chemistry. The first was David Agnew, who taught me GCSE, and the second Ashley Wheway, who taught me A-level. However, special mentions also go to Judith Gillham, Helen Pollard, Mary Hoyle, and Rick Marshall, who did not teach me chemistry, but taught me a great deal indeed. I do not come from an academic background, nor a prosperous one. There was no learned discourse around my dinner table. Indeed, I was the first person in my family to stay at school post-16. These teachers gave me their time, their patience, and their love of science. They showed me that there was another world. I hung on their every word.

When I was 14 I was fostered. My foster parents were very educated, kind, and tolerant people, who seemed to be interested in everything. This was very inspiring to me. To them, being educated and knowledgeable was a privilege and a duty. My foster mother was a teacher. With so many wonderful teachers in my life, perhaps my later career choice was inevitable.

I had a chemistry set when I was around 8 years old. I loved it. I also had lots of science toys, like a microscope, telescope, Meccano® sets, that sort of thing. I was a very bright child, and constantly questioned phenomena I saw or read about. In my home we had very few books. We did have a set of Caxton’s Encyclopaedia. By the time I was 8, I had read all 20 volumes. I devoted a great deal of time to collecting and categorising things: stamps; foreign currency; books. If such a thing is possible, I was born a scientist. Perhaps Sagan was right.

Studying chemistry at school and at university

Cheryl Alexander and Orca at her graduation

The highlight of studying chemistry was the incredible scope of the science: from the enormous to the unimaginably tiny and the effect that atoms and their interactions have on literally everything. It fills me with awe even now. I remember Mr Agnew teaching the periodic table; he said it was ‘the shopping list for building a universe’. I’ve never forgotten that.

Getting into university was a challenge! There was one institution which flatly refused to have me on the basis of my disability; a policy which is, thankfully, now illegal. This was very hurtful: I would have been much happier if I had been rejected on academic grounds. There was great physical challenge associated with studying chemistry. I did not use my wheelchair in the lab for my first degree, though this became necessary in my fourth year. Instead I used a knee-ankle-foot orthosis and crutches (I would no longer be able to do this if I started out today). This was nothing compared to the academic challenge. I did not find my first degree easy by any means. I was a constant visitor to my tutors’ offices for assistance. I remember many, many late nights in front of computers, and long hours in the lab. I remember intense frustration at concepts I could not grasp. And I loved every minute.

My heartfelt thanks go to my supervisor, Professor Paul Walton, who went above and beyond the call to support me. It is certain that without him, I should not have graduated.

Current career

I am a science teacher in a secondary school.

I love to see the lights coming on in young minds. I never tire of it. I love finding ways to engage students who are determinedly uninterested. I love the searching questions from the keen, the challenges to prove what I say. The ‘way out there’ ideas they have. I love talking to people who haven’t made their minds up about anything yet. It is a challenge and a great responsibility.

Teaching is a different animal altogether. It is a vocation of intense highs and lows. Education is always in the political forefront; teachers in the firing line. It is a great challenge to weather the storms of modern state education. But when you strip away the thick cladding of nonsense that surrounds the profession, and return to shaping the minds and hearts of the next generation of scientists, there can be no better job. Teaching is many things, but it is never dull.  

University for a wheelchair user

Cheryl Alexander teaching

It was very hard to be the first. I was certainly not the first disabled person to study chemistry, nor to become a teacher. But I was and am still one of very few. This means that in many situations, I am the first to encounter the barriers, physical and otherwise, I find in my path. In some ways I see this very positively, as I can improve the situation of those who follow. In other ways, it is intensely frustrating. There are battles in which I have had to concede defeat. It can make the world seem very unjust. When you must choose to apply for jobs on the basis of whether the laboratories are on the ground or the first floor, you may find your options somewhat limited. Gladly, this is changing. I certainly consider myself fortunate indeed not to have been making this journey 30 or 40 years ago.

In addition, I am the archetypal disabled person, as the image in the mind of most when they think about disability is that of a person in a wheelchair. When attempting to make policies and infrastructure more inclusive, it is very important to think about the bigger picture. Making a building more accessible to me is unlikely to be of great benefit to a person who is deaf.

I have been fortunate enough to meet and to teach young people with disabilities. Young disabled people  and here I speak mainly from my own perspective as a wheelchair user do not get many opportunities to see disabled adults just living their lives. I do not consider myself particularly inspirational because I am in a chair, and I didn’t think that it would have helped me as a child to meet someone like me, but I have seen the effect this can have on young disabled people. They can see that there need not be limits on the kind of adult they can become. It is easy, even without acknowledging it, to believe that a career, a programme of study or a particular lifestyle is closed to you, simply having never seen someone like you do it. And having a disability, it is all too easy to believe that only other people with a disability are like you.

Orca the dog

In my third year I became very ill and broke both of my arms in an accident at home (I have osteoporosis). As a wheelchair user this was rather bad news. This led to my taking a year off from my studies. Watching my friends graduate was very difficult to deal with, and I have to confess to becoming rather depressed.

Then along came Orca.

Orca the dog

I applied for a dog, and, long story short, brought Orca home with me in 2003. That autumn, I returned to university and there was no looking back. I graduated first in chemistry, and took a PGCE and then an MA. Orca was with me the whole time, and I believe he has attended enough lectures to graduate himself.  

Orca gave me companionship and confidence, in that I did not have to worry about the many day-ruining eventualities that might befall a busy wheelchair user. It is no understatement to say that Orca is my best friend. He was at all my graduation ceremonies. He was at my wedding. He visited my daughter in the hospital the day she was born. He is my Boswell. It is hard to find words to express what he means to me.

Thoughts on diversity

Orca the dog

I think that there is a trickling effect, where more underrepresented groups are become more represented at a quickening pace. Being a product of my generation, I think that the barriers are lifting. I remember having a female physics teacher at school, Helen Pollard. I did not think that this was unusual, though now I know that it was (and still is).

People with disabilities have much greater acceptance in society than a generation ago, not only as people who have something to offer the world, but as capable people who can contribute as much as anyone else.

On a practical level I am not sure what could be done, nor if there was anything in my background that could be repeated for the benefit of others. Being both disabled and female, it is difficult for me to isolate one group from another: is my working in the scientific community more like an able-bodied woman or a disabled man? This is an impossible question to answer, and so I do not try, for the result is the same. Considering people as groups will only get you so far. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges I faced was not my disability, but my background. Until I was about 14, I did not really know what university was.  

I think many of the barriers will, in time, lift by themselves, as more enlightened attitudes to things like disability and sexuality dominate, in a similar way to those about race, though I do appreciate there is still a way to go here.

Study what you love; seek knowledge and understanding for its own sake. Be the first if you must; you will not be the last.

Words by Cheryl Alexander
Images © Stephen Lake/Royal Society of Chemistry
Published January 2014

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