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Tracey Eldridge-Hinmers on schools’ requirements to have an accessibility plan to ensure the needs of pupils with disabilities are met

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA) required schools to produce accessibility plans every three years. This duty is replicated in the Equality Act 2010. In line with the regulatory framework, current accessibility plans should be in place for the three-year period April 2012-March 2015. Any new school is required to have an accessibility plan in place no later than one month after opening.

An accessibility plan is required to contain strategies for:

• Increasing the extent to which disabled pupils can participate in the curriculum

• Improving the physical environment of the school to increase the extent to which disabled pupils can take advantage of education and benefits, facilities or services offered or provided by the school

• Improving the delivery to disabled pupils of information which is readily accessible to pupils who are not disabled. The delivery of such information should be made in a reasonable time and after taking into account disabled pupils’ disabilities and preferences expressed by them and their parents.

The strategies should contain short-, medium- and long-term targets over the life of the plan. Schools are not required to make physical alterations to the fabric of the building in order to meet the needs of disabled pupils. However, they are required to take reasonable steps to address physical features where they affect disabled members of the public who use the school premises. As disability considerations become more of a focus, it is sensible to include plans for improving physical facilities for disabled pupils and members of the public as part of any ongoing refurbishment and improvement programmes.

When providing services, schools must make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled people are able to use the school’s services as far as is reasonable to the same standard as non-disabled people. The school must not wait until a disabled person wants to use the services. It is an anticipatory duty and schools are therefore required to think in advance about what people with a range of impairments might reasonably need, such as people who have a visual impairment, a hearing impairment, a mobility impairment or a learning disability.

Where a physical feature (for example steps, an entrance or exit or toilet facility) makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for a disabled person to access the service, schools are required to take reasonable steps to:

• Remove the feature

• Or alter it so that it no longer has that effect

• Or provide reasonable means for avoiding the feature

• Or provide a reasonable alternative method of making the service available.

It is recognised that there may be problems with implementing plans, thus schools are required to take reasonable steps. In order to show that such reasonable steps have been taken, it is important that schools are able to demonstrate a clear process of decision-making. It is recommended that schools consult with relevant stakeholders in the planning process. Such consultation may include the recording of discussions of issues and options which highlights the clear and detailed reasons for decisions. If there is a challenge relating to a failure to make reasonable adjustments, or a disability discrimination claim, the school can demonstrate ‘reasonableness’ with a clear documentary evidence trail.

Schools may wish to consider the following when deciding what should be included in their accessibility plans:

• Do teachers have the necessary training to teach and support disabled pupils?

• Are classrooms optimally organised for disabled pupils?

• A re lessons responsive to pupil diversity?

• Do lessons involve work to be done by individuals, pairs, groups, whole class?

• Do staff recognise and allow for additional time required by some disabled pupils to use equipment in practical work?

• Do staff recognise and allow for the mental effort expended by some disabled pupils, e.g. lip reading?

• Do you provide access to computer technology appropriate for pupils with disabilities?

• Are there realistic expectations of all pupils?

• Does the size and layout of areas, including all academic and social facilities, classrooms, canteen, library and common areas allow access for all pupils?

• Can pupils who use wheelchairs move around the buildings and site without experiencing barriers to access such as those caused by doorways, steps and stairs, and toilet facilities?

• Are pathways of travel around the site and parking arrangements safe, routes logical and well signed?

• Are emergency and evacuation systems set up to inform all pupils, including pupils with SEN and disability, including alarms with both visual and auditory components?

• Are non-visual guides used to assist people to use buildings?

• Could any of the décor or signage be considered to be confusing or disorientating for disabled students with visual impairment, autism or epilepsy?

• Are areas to which pupils should have access well lit?

• Are steps taken to reduce background noise for hearing impaired pupils such as considering a room’s acoustics, noisy equipment?

• Is furniture and equipment selected, adjusted and located appropriately?

• Do you provide information in simple language, symbols, large print, on audiotape or in Braille for pupils and prospective pupils who may have difficulty with standard forms of printed information?

• Do you ensure that information is presented to groups in a way which is user-friendly for people with disabilities, e.g. by reading aloud overhead projections and describing diagrams?

• Do you have the facilities such as ICT to produce written information in different formats?

• Do you ensure that staff are familiar with technology and practices developed to assist people with disabilities?

What is reasonable for a school to do depends, among other factors, on the size of the school and the nature of the facilities or services being provided. Schools will need to consider what it is reasonable to change so that disabled people with a range of different impairments are able to access the many services provided. Factors such as the cost of making changes and obtaining any necessary planning permission can be considered when deciding whether an adjustment is reasonable. Some examples of reasonable adjustments include:

• Installing a ramp

• Designating any parking spaces close to the school entrance for the vehicles of disabled people and making sure that non-disabled people are challenged if they park in them,

• Ensuring that open days and other events at the school are held on ground level and are easily accessible by those with mobility impairments.

It is recommended that the accessibility plan is read in conjunction with the following policies and documents to ensure that they dove-tail and represent a whole school, strategic approach to disability, equality and accessibility: school prospectus, equal opportunities policies, health and safety policy, special educational needs and learning difficulties policy, disability policy.

The accessibility plan must be made publically available and kept under review. It is recommended that the governing body reproduces the accessibility plan in its annual report to parents. As a minimum the annual report must include an explanation of the admission arrangements for disabled pupils and how it will ensure that they are treated fairly.

Tracey Eldridge-Hinmers is a senior associate at leading education law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards. Tracey can be contacted on 0207 665 0802 or at teldridge-hinmers@vwv.co.uk

 

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