How to make schools more accessible for disabled students

According to the Disabled Living Foundation, there are around 800,000 disabled children under the age of 16. That’s almost 1 in 20 children in the UK. Disabilities affecting children include physical disabilities, social and behavioural impairments, and learning disabilities.

Improving accessibility in schools has been a top priority for disability rights groups for many years. At Innova, we have worked with a number of SEN Schools to deliver projects that make education more inclusive for all pupils.

However, Mencap have reported that the majority of children with disabilities and special educational needs attend mainstream schools. This highlights the fact that increasing accessibility isn’t just the responsibility of SEN schools. All schools should be doing their part to be more accessible to disabled students.

Whether it’s a private school, grammar, state-funded academy, or SEN school, there are steps all educational facilities can take to better support students with disabilities.

Here are our top tips on how to make schools more accessible for disabled students:

Be more wheelchair-friendly

A major problem for disabled children who use wheelchairs is that it’s not always possible for them to access the classroom – or, even worse, the school building – without assistance.

Not only does this create a barrier between them and their education, but it can impact on their confidence. All children are trying to become more independent throughout their school years. Poor access makes this much more difficult for children using wheelchairs.

We recommend that all schools take action to ensure appropriate access ramps and lifts are installed so the entire school is wheelchair accessible.

Do schools have to be wheelchair accessible?

Disability rights laws in the UK mean it is illegal for schools to treat disabled students unfavourably.

These laws are designed to protect students from direct discrimination (refusing admission), indirect discrimination (not providing forms in accessible formats) and harassment.

However, under current laws, schools do not have to make physical alterations to improve accessibility e.g. adding ramps. Instead, they must publish a plan to improve accessibility for disabled pupils and include the steps they are going to take to implement it.

So, whilst schools do have to consider their accessibility, they are under no obligation to make immediate changes to improve access for wheelchair users.

Children and teenagers in wheelchairs require schools to have access ramps
The 2010 Equality Act made it the duty of local councils to make adjustments to ensure public places are accessible for people with disabilities. This duty does not apply directly to schools, they must create an accessibility plan instead.

Wheelchair storage

A facility that is often overlooked in schools is wheelchair storage.

Wheelchair stores are rooms designated for storing wheelchairs and powerchairs when they are not in use. This is particularly important for schools with pupils that only need their wheelchair between lessons and are transferred to another chair whilst in the classroom.

Having a defined storage space prevents classrooms from becoming crowded with equipment that isn’t in use. It avoids wheelchairs accidentally getting damaged by other children and removes a trip hazard from the classroom.

These stores should be next to the classroom. This allows caregivers and other staff to access the student’s wheelchair quickly and easily when needed. Ideally, wheelchair stores should be fitted with charge points so that powerchairs can be recharged whilst the students are in class. This is especially relevant in SEN schools where many pupils use wheelchairs and powerchairs.

Remember that not all disabilities are visible

Wheelchair access is one of the first things that comes to mind when talking about improving accessibility. But when creating an accessible school environment, it’s important to remember that children are affected by a wide range of disabilities. Not all of which are immediately visible.

Supporting students with visual impairments

Children with visual impairments may need specific adaptations to get the most out of school. Here are some suggestions for changes any school can make learning more inclusive for students with visual impairments:

  • Large print and braille worksheets.
  • Encourage multi-sensory learning – present information in audio formats and offer hands-on demonstrations wherever possible.
  • Improve lighting in classrooms.
  • Create spacious classrooms – then keep them clear and tidy to avoid trip hazards.

Supporting students with learning disabilities

Learning disabilities can affect a child’s school experience in many different ways. A student with Dyslexia will require adjustments to support their reading and writing. Whereas another student may have difficulties with organisation, attention, and memory.

To make a school more accessible for students with learning disabilities, you will need to consider the individual needs of the pupils. Here are some examples of things you could try:

  • Quiet rooms – some students may concentrate better on tasks in a quiet room free from distraction.
  • Don’t rely solely on written work – many children benefit from giving verbal answers or drawing diagrams instead.
  • Sensory rooms – providing sensory stimulation can help students to improve skills e.g. coordination. Time in sensory rooms can also help children to better engage with other aspects of the school day.
Sensory stimulation helps children to develop.

Improve the care facilities

Providing adequate wheelchair access and making adjustments to support children with physical and learning disabilities are steps all schools should be taking to improve their accessibility.

However, SEN schools must be suited to a larger number of disabled students than mainstream schools. Their students will often also have more diverse and complex disabilities.

Therefore, SEN schools may want to take accessibility one step further. We are increasingly speaking to schools that want to install equipment that supports their students’ clinical care as well as giving them full access to education.

Let’s look at some ways SEN schools can support more of their students’ needs:

Install Changing Places

Regarding disabled toilets in schools, UK regulations state that:

“Each toilet for disabled pupils needs to contain one toilet and one washbasin (and possibly a shower or other washdown fitting) and have a door opening directly onto a circulation space that is not a staircase, which can be secured from the inside. Where possible, the number and location of accessible toilets will be sufficient to ensure a reasonable travel distance for users that does not involve changing floor levels.”

However, disabled-access toilets simply do not meet the needs of many disabled students. There isn’t enough space, there are no changing facilities and there’s no specialist equipment for high-dependency students who need a lot of support.

Changing Places are a much better option for SEN schools. A changing place must be at least 3m wide, 4m long and 2.4m high. This gives enough room for the user and up to two carers to comfortably use the space.

To comply with Changing Places regulations, they must also include all the following equipment:

  • Ceiling track hoist
  • Changing bench
  • Peninsular toilet
  • Adjustable sink

To enquire about installing a Changing Place, get in touch. Our specialist team will be happy to help answer any questions about specifications, installation, and cost.

Incorporate hoist systems

If you have pupils that require hoisted transfers, then we strongly recommend installing ceiling track hoist systems throughout the school rather than just in bathrooms and changing places.

We offer flexible systems that can be custom designed to suit any room layout. Innovative track components like gates and turntables let you connect systems in different rooms. This allows students to move from a classroom, down the corridor, to a therapy room quickly and easily in a single transfer.

This makes moving and handling much more comfortable for students and easier and less time-consuming for staff.

Learn more about all the ceiling track hoist options available at Innova.

Install a hydrotherapy pool

Hydrotherapy pools are becoming a very popular piece of equipment for SEN schools. This is down to the many therapeutic benefits of hydrotherapy including improving muscle tone, boosting the immune system, and stimulating blood flow.

We always recommend stainless steel hydrotherapy pools for use in schools. They are cheaper to install and maintain than tiled pools. Plus, they provide much better infection control – there are no crevices to harbour bacteria! This is ideal for schools where multiple children will be using the same pool.

To provide additional sensory stimulation, you can add features like water jets and colour-changing LED lights.

For more information on designing hydrotherapy pools for SEN school, read this guide.

Summary

Around 800,000 school-aged children in the UK have a disability. But accessibility in schools is still a huge issue. This guide covers the different steps both mainstream schools and SEN schools can take to become more accessible for disabled students. By improving wheelchair accessibility, making adjustments to support pupils with both physical and learning disabilities, and even installing equipment to support clinical care, schools can help to make the education system more inclusive of disabled pupils.