I've got a disability, let me in here

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Disability legislation has got schools in North Yorkshire on the move. Ian Lamming discovers that catering for disabled staff and pupils is about more than providing wheelchair access

That handrail is too square. That door is too heavy. Those colours are the same tones. The staircase juts out. The disabled toilet is full of traffic cones. The lighting is too dim. Where are the signs to the fire escapes? Where are the signs to the toilets? In fact, where are the signs?

It's amazing how critical the eye can become when pointed in the right direction. The world is set up for standard people - right-handed, 5ft 10in males to be precise. But things are starting to change.

By the end of this month, every school will have to have written a plan on how it might adapt to meet the needs of disabled people. The Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act, which became statutory last September, says schools must make "reasonable adjustments" to meet such needs.

"If we did all the work we had to do and put in lifts everywhere, we'd bankrupt the Chancellor of the Exchequer," says chartered surveyor and access consultant Joseph Dickinson. "But that goes beyond the definition of reasonable."

Instead, local education authorities and schools have to increase their levels of disability awareness, survey their properties and come up with a plan of action. Schools must be able to show how they intend to cater for disabled people, and Ofsted is charged with making sure they do.

But professional advice could cost schools between pound;500 and pound;3,000 per survey and might do little to increase awareness of the day-to-day difficulties faced by many disabled people in education.

Which is why North Yorkshire LEA has organised a major training programme as part of its special needs and disability strategy. Hundreds of its staff are being sent on one-day seminars run by Mr Dickinson, whose practice is based in Northumberland. "This way their knowledge is kept in the school," he says. "If you have to do something yourself, you understand it better and you learn by doing it."

Almost 400 teachers will attend the course along with 10 council staff, 40 continuing education officers and 33 building designers and architects.

Schools in Leeds, Liverpool and Bexley, in Greater London, will follow later this year, the European Year of Disability. "The legislation is particularly challenging for schools, not only the implications for the buildings but the change in attitudes needed," says North Yorkshire's capital support officer, former deputy head Jill Jaques.

There's a lot more to it than installing ramps and lifts at pound;75,000 a time. The legislation will cover 8.7 million people, of whom 95 per cent have no need of a wheelchair; of the 5 per cent who do, half are able to get out of them to use stairs. The most common disabilities are visual and aural impairment, and frailty caused by cancer, HIV or arthritis; the biggest hidden problem is dyslexia.And all adults over the age of 45 become increasingly prone to ailments that could lead to a disability.

For these people of all ages, sexes and cultures, life can be made much easier by simple, cheap and common-sense adaptations that also benefit able-bodied people.

For example, a lever handle on a door is easier than a knob for someone with dextral problems - and for the teacher whose hands are full of books.

Correct lighting is invaluable for those with sight problems, but also benefits children at the back of the classroom whose view is obscured by the glare on the whiteboard. Painting the corridor walls and ceiling blue, fitting a blue carpet and installing blue doors may look tidy and uniform, but it doesn't help the person who can't distinguish between colours. It's not the colour scheme that matters, it's the tonal contrast differentiating walls from walking areas, doors from walls and the edge of a step from the rise.

Expensive toilets for the disabled are of little use if they remain locked, or sited away from main areas and not signposted. They are equally pointless if they are used as storerooms. However, a "toilet" sign might as well be written in a foreign language to someone with dyslexia. Use universally recognisable symbols, and help foreign students and those with learning difficulties along the way.

On the NorthYorkshire course, after a morning in the classroom, teachers are paired up to "interrogate" a school in Harrogate. "Look at that - no emergency pull-cord in the disabled toilet," says Helen Davey, head of Christ Church CE school in Skipton. "And the signs, where are the signs?"

Mr Dickinson says there is a common conclusion to all the 26 seminars he has staged. "Ninety five per cent of the issues identified are low-cost or no cost, but 95 per cent are high priority," he says.

Mick Britton, assistant head of Harrogate's St John Fisher RC school, finds the course informative and reassuring. "It's been empowering," he says. "I didn't know where to start. I thought it was about lifts and massive structural work, but it's not, it's about signs, light and paint."

Dickinson Associates, tel: 01670 505600

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