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Published
17 August 2002
Many teachers would rather have a child with asthma in their class than one with epilepsy, according to a Lecturer in the School of Education at Southern Cross University completing her PhD on the subject.

Noelene Weatherby-Fell, who co-ordinates Professional Experience for secondary student teachers, said there was still a lot of ignorance and apprehension about epilepsy, and most media and community focus had been on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"If a teacher has a child with asthma in their class they are much more at risk of having a serious situation on their hands than if they have a child with epilepsy, yet I'm sure they would rather have children with asthma than epilepsy," Ms Weatherby-Fell said.

"My feeling is epilepsy is still put on the shelf, people are very fearful and we, as a society, don't want to know about it, yet epilepsy is the most common serious neurological condition, affecting at least 1 in 200 people," she said.

Epilepsy can be difficult to diagnose: 'absence' or 'petit mal' seizures can occur frequently without any awareness of the occurrence. They involve temporary loss of consciousness, but the person's eyes remain open. The more obvious grand mal seizures are often frightening for the observer.

"Its label as a disease and a handicap are evidence of the reality of epilepsy's stigma and the discrimination which some sufferers endure," Ms Weatherby-Fell said.

"Such children can be subject to comments from unaware teachers on their reports as 'Needs to try harder' and 'Daydreams too much'," she said. "This can have a detrimental effect on both their learning and their relationship with the teacher.

"From personal experience, there have been interesting comments if teachers know a child has epilepsy, or is on epilepsy medication: suddenly the expectations change."

There has been a perception that people with epilepsy are of lower intelligence and slow to learn, but that is not necessarily the case, and many greats in history have had the condition. They include Napolean Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, St Paul, Socrates, Dante, Charles Dickens, Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Martin Luther King, and Thomas Edison.

In ancient times people having an epileptic fit were thought to be possessed by an evil spirit, and a WHO fact sheet said for 2,000 years people with epilepsy were feared and treated as outcasts. As late as the early 1900's in Victoria, epileptics were committed to an asylum called the Talbot Colony, and treated with people with severe mental problems, Mrs Weatherby-Fell said.

Her study will include a survey of attitudes, perceptions and knowledge by secondary school teachers concerning epilepsy, students who suffer from epilepsy and their parents, mainly on the NSW north coast. She will also be looking at whether teacher education courses in NSW universities adequately prepare teachers to deal with children with epilepsy, and whether NSW Educational Policy supports teachers dealing with children with epilepsy.

"My research is to make teachers more aware about the reality of epilepsy and the potential that children can still achieve with epilepsy," Ms Weatherby-Fell said.

"Society's 'acceptance' of epilepsy is influenced by the way in which schools and teachers relate to the individual and the disorder," she said.

"I think if we are able to tackle the problem in teacher education, then it would make teachers aware right from the very beginning (of their careers), but of course that may only going to happen with government support as well in terms of making it a priority area."

For more information contact Noelene Weatherby-Fell, in the School of Education, ph: 02 6620 3136, or email: [email protected], or contact the Epilepsy Association in Australia ph: 1300 366 162, or email: [email protected]; or Sara Crowe in the Media Unit, ph: 02 6620 3144.