Inclusion Now 54

Coming Soon: What We Have Learned About Accessibility Plans

For the last 18 months or so, I have been working for ALLFIE on a research project funded by Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) into the effectiveness of Accessibility Plans in secondary schools. My findings and reflections on the negative and potentially devastating impact of ineffective Accessibility Plans on Disabled children and their families are due to be published next year.

Some of the accounts have been truly shocking and have highlighted why this research and the role of ALLFIE is so important. The findings suggest that schools are in breach of national and international laws on human rights. The report sets out recommendations which could help to address some of the educational, social and physical inequalities in schools, delivering vast improvements in experiences and outcomes, and ensuring the rights of Disabled young people are not only protected but fully realised.

So what are Accessibility Plans? An Accessibility Plan sets out how, over time, the school is going to increase access to the curriculum for Disabled pupils, improve the physical environment of the school to increase access for Disabled pupils and make written information more accessible to Disabled pupils by providing it in a range of different ways. This is a key document that seems not to be well publicised. According to our online survey almost 80% of parents who responded were not aware of Accessibility Plans at their school.

Since 2010, according to figures from the Department of Education, the number of children and young people labelled as having special educational needs via an Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan, has increased from almost 230,000 to over 350,000. That is a 55% increase and does not include children who have no formal diagnosis yet. Given such a substantial rise, knowing about Accessibility Plans and how effective they are is vital. Participants told us that delivery of written information was variable. Disabled young participants generally agreed that provision of accessible information was poor and most participants experienced long delays before requested accessible information was provided.

Education professionals taking part recognised that the delivery of information in alternative formats was reactive and unpredictable in their schools, with many stating that accessible documents would only be provided if specific requests were made, rather than as standard practice for Disabled pupils. In general, the professionals did not take responsibility for this shortcoming themselves or assign responsibility to their institutions; instead, they felt factors such as lack of funding and insufficient uptake by pupils were more significant.

From responses to our online questionnaire, the majority of parents reported that in the absence of accessible information they were often forced to scour a school’s website hoping they had not missed news regarding school activities. Some said they had to ask staff or other parents repeatedly for the information; for others, news would often come as a surprise or be found out by chance.

Participants identified similar physical access barriers in schools. A parent shared her experience of visiting the secondary school her son wanted to attend: ‘And then there was certain parts of the building we couldn’t get into … it just got worse and worse and worse.’ She added that they were not prepared to adapt the school environment. Some parents discussed sensory barriers such as noise, smell, visual clutter as well as inappropriate social cues faced by their children. For most parents, barriers were often exaggerated by professionals’ inflexible and unhelpful attitudes. In relation to access, it was evident that Accessibility Plans did not always comply with legal requirements.

Disabled young participants felt there was no level playing field in respect of their ability to participate in classroom activities and the school curriculum, particularly when it came to assessments. Their experiences in the classroom showed that the support they received from teaching staff was ad hoc. Parents were frustrated with professionals’ insensitive attitudes in making reasonable adjustments to meet their children’s impairment-related needs. Whilst it was recognised that some staff were supportive, others lacked the ability to consider students’ diverse needs; they were unable to make appropriate adjustments and instead encouraged independent studying. The education professionals, for their part, felt that an effective and fully implemented Accessibility Plan would be useful to promote and ensure equality in teaching.

Overall, the Disabled young people and parents felt let down by schools and unhappy about prejudiced attitudes amongst staff and a lack of understanding of their individual needs. Although some professionals were aware of the shortfalls and put them down to cuts in school budgets, others refused to recognise gaps in access and support services. Whilst there are increasing pressures on schools with excessive accountability measures and increased stress and bullying amongst staff, discrimination against Disabled young people and their families is unacceptable. One mother wrote: ‘It has broken us as a family. So many breakdowns, tears and I’m a lot older than I should be.’

By embedding positive inclusive practices in schools, all children will learn what inclusion is and aspire to a better world where social justice, equality, citizenship, participation and human rights, as well as friendship, are celebrated. The necessary changes in the current education system will benefit all learners and help to create an inclusive environment for everyone. As one of the parents said: ‘… an inclusive school is a great benefit to everybody – not just children with disabilities and additional needs, but it’s a great benefit to all of us, to share in our humanity … it just makes us into better people, doesn’t it?’

Dr Armineh Soorenian