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Lessons from the experts

Researching a real need with real people was the successful ingredient in a project on access for the disabled. Roger Frost reports.

A former brewer's warehouse is home to The Quay Arts Centre in Newport, Isle of Wight. It retains all its charm - its stone stairs, trap doors, uneven floors and all the mind-your-step quaintness that's great for an outing. It is not so great to anyone who is disabled.

Technology co-ordinator Carol-Anne Eades and her class of 12-year-olds have moved into this, their local art gallery, for the day. They have been joined by disabled adults and children. They are not here to sip the culture, they are looking for access problems. By the end of an hour they will have found enough to worry the biggest budget.

Right now they are manoeuvring round the exhibits in threes and fours. One group is with a girl in a wheelchair - they are testing and talking about a ramp built specially for one. She says it's too steep. She shows how, with a mass of might, it's possible to make it to the top. The wheel catches on a quarry tile. They talk more and note it all down.

An adult in a wheelchair takes another group to the car park. They find narrow bays and steep cambers, no signs and several steps. Some others visit the toilets - to hit yet more steps and discover how the mirrors, taps and the flush, too, are almost impossible to reach.

A couple of hours beforehand, though it seemed like a couple of minutes, the children from Downside Middle School and their peers from Medina House special day school were complete strangers. They had sat together with some local disabled adults in a tense silence. Now, having played ice-breaking games, learned names, described each other in terms of hobbies and pop groups, they are getting on famously. They have magically formed into groups, and listened to each other. They have briefly tried to swap roles - with the able children touring the gallery, using crutches, wheelchairs, ear muffs, blindfolds and so on.

The atmosphere is electric, but at one point Carol-Anne Eades had wondered if this untested exercise was ever going to work. "We were going to have six children and six adults but that turned into 30-plus. For a moment it looked like they wouldn't have anything to say or come up with any ideas and I'd have to keep saying, 'You do this' and, 'You do that'."

But there was none of that. After lunch in the brown bread and quiche cafe, the groups brainstormed solutions to the gallery's problems. They modelled their ideas in paper and card and came up with tactile signs to help the blind and wider bays for the car park. They drew plans for moving things a bit up or a bit down, mostly down, and they excitedly readied themselves for a grand final presentation before home time. Quite how this happened escaped me, I may have blinked, but the organising was entirely transparent.

There was one faux pas: during the role play, a blindfolded boy let out a nervous giggle. Few noticed, but it troubled a partially-sighted volunteer. Anne Preston of the island's Disability Action Group says: "This role play is OK if you explain that it's just to give some feel of what it's like to be disabled. We're the people who live with it, not just for a short while, but all the time," she adds, watching an able-bodied girl put her crutches down to negotiate an awkward doorway.

Nevertheless, the disabled children enjoyed their role, and often led the groups. Stephanie Robson, the technology teacher from Medina House, says: "It's been a good opportunity for the groups to meet and become aware of the needs. The disabled children are being understood by able-bodied people and enjoying sharing their difficulties."

Helping the day along was Jane Glendinning from the arts centre itself. She also helped kick-start the project, by contacting schools and disabled persons groups, all under the umbrella of BT's Skills Project, a programme of creative activities across the south coast of England.

She found Carol-Anne Eades after hearing of her past project where the pupils suggested ways to calm traffic on roads around the school - ideas which were implemented by the local council. This time, they are on a similar tack. When they get back to school the children are going to build an exhibition for the arts centre, setting out their proposals. There is even going to be an official study to see if the centre can feasibly be made more friendly to disabled people.

Researching real needs with real clients and independently devising solutions is an adventurous step for 12-year-olds. Many schools prefer a softly-softly introduction to technology at this age, providing highly-structured projects such as making wooden spatulas or plastic pens. But Ms Eades believes the project, far from seeming too daunting, has helped pupils build up their confidence. She says: "The on-the-spot research has increased the children's awareness about what it is like to be disabled.

"We've brainstormed the problems, tried to solve them in groups and evaluated all through. I've learned that technology is about making things happen for everybody, not just able-bodied people, and the children have gained the confidence that they can actually improve things."

As a sign of that confidence, the children want to produce a teaching pack to help others do a similar project themselves. One child sai: "The more people who do this the more people will see how difficult it is being disabled. I think if our generation can see the problems, then things will improve. "

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