What we learned from our project about Accessibility Plans
In 2018, ALLFIE was given funding from the ‘Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning’ (DRILL) programme to lead a project that examined whether Accessibility Plans were effective in driving inclusive education in English secondary schools post Equality Act 2010.
The Equality Act (EA) 2010 and Children and Families Act (2014) made it compulsory for all education and training providers to develop and publish Accessibility Plans outlining how they intended to make their settings more accessible over the course of time. As the project researcher, I travelled across England conducting 12 focus groups, five semi-structured interviews and two sets of online questionnaires to glean people’s experiences and perspectives about different topics based on the three key areas that Accessibility Plans are legally required to focus on:- information delivery, physical access, and curriculum. Disabled young people, parents of Disabled young people, and education professionals took part in the project, and made up three separate participant groups. Quantitative data gathered from various sources were also used to support the field study. Here are some of our project findings.
Delivery of written information
In our project, Disabled young participants generally thought that the provision of accessible information was poor. Parents’ responses were more diverse. The majority of parents reported that in the absence of adequate provision of accessible information, they had no choice but 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. The professional participants admitted that in their schools, the delivery of information in alternative formats was inconsistent. Many talked about accessible documents only being provided if pupils or parents made specific requests, rather than as standard practice throughout school. Instead of assigning responsibility to their school, the majority of the professionals felt factors such as lack of funding and not enough uptake by pupils were more important reasons.
All of the project participants highlighted very similar physical access barriers within their schools. These included physical organisation of school buildings, an excessive number of steps, broken lifts, and inadequate provision of accessible toilets. Some parents pointed out how their children’s sensory issues, which were clearly causing anxiety, were being totally unsupported and misunderstood in their schools. In the online questionnaire, one parent wrote:
‘Too much distraction. Walls & some windows are covered with text, photos, pictures, drawings, info. Desks are filled with stationary pots. The acoustics in the dining area are bad, making it extremely noisy at lunch & break times.’
For most parents, barriers were often amplified by professionals’ inflexible attitudes when they needed help with removing the obstacles. In relation to access, it was clear that Accessibility Plans did not always comply with legal requirements.
In terms of teaching, learning and assessment, Disabled young participants felt that there was no level playing field in respect of their ability to participate in classroom activities and the school curriculum, particularly in relation to assessments. Parents were also frustrated with professionals’ insensitive attitudes in making reasonable adjustments to meet their children’s impairment-related needs. In one parent’s words:
‘The teacher disregards my daughter’s medical needs and diagnosis and makes no concessions, which is now impacting on her confidence, mental health, enthusiasm to learn and not wanting to go to school. Other students have been put down in front of the class and I’m not sure if this has happened to my daughter, as she doesn’t want to talk about school at all.’
Other parents revealed concerns that the adjustments they had requested for their children had not been honoured by their school, and that their children were being taught in corridors every day and being punished for behaviour that was consistent with their diagnosis, such as shouting out for not being able to follow a particular teaching style. The education professionals, for their part, felt that an effective and fully implemented Accessibility Plan would be a useful tool to promote and ensure equality in teaching.
Even though social inclusion in its own right is not one of the key areas that an Accessibility Plan is required to focus on, I was interested to learn about participants’ experiences and views in this area. In their focus groups, Disabled young participants explained how they were denied full participation in their school community. They faced a number of barriers, including prejudicial attitudes, inadequate transport facilities, lack of trained staff during social time, limited finances, and inaccessible school activities, which led to them feeling excluded. Many Disabled young people experienced bullying which had a long-term impact on their confidence and self-esteem. Disturbing were also incidents involving the use of isolation booths, and as a result, reports of mental health difficulties being experienced by Disabled young people.
The professional participants agreed that inclusive practices to help with Disabled children’s social inclusion were ad-hoc and inconsistently implemented. All these accounts from the project make clear that social inclusion in school communities should be a key part of any Accessibility Plan, as opposed to a side issue, in order to help prevent the frequent bullying and exclusion of Disabled young people and promote a culture of equality among peers.
Our project research highlighted systematic gaps in Disabled young people’s education, providing a stark contrast to the requirements of not only national but also international legal instruments such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). It is essential that government leaders, policy makers and society at large, in discussion with strategic thinkers and those who deliver front-line education and training services, recognise and address these structural and institutional barriers in an urgent and comprehensive way. We believe through the implementation of our project recommendations, effective and fully implementable Accessibility Plans can be developed and nationally enforced. This can then lead to more inclusive schools, where Disabled and non-disabled young people learn and play together and grow into adults who can understand and respect each other’s differences.
More information can be found in the report ‘Accessibility Plans as effective tools for inclusion: are they working?’
This report is also available in an easy-read version: Accessibility plans as effective tools for inclusion: easy-read
Dr Armineh Soorenian, Project Researcher and Author