Laws on access are toughening up – and schools and colleges must bear examination, says Jane Simpson of Aedas Access Consultancy
New legislation is pushing architects and specifiers into making new and existing college and school buildings more accessible to people with special educational needs and disabilities.

Several acts are impacting upon the design, specification and management of schools: the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA) and the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). The philosophy of the DDA and SENDA is that disabled people, including children, should be able to use any service provided within a building or environment.

SENDA says that disabled students must not be substantially disadvantaged in their college lives. This will affect, for example, the way they are taught, the communication mechanisms, the format of information and the premises in which they are taught. It means that schools, colleges and universities can be challenged from October 2005 over barriers to services. Schools will have to make progressive improvements and provide accessibility statements every year to show what they've done and plan to do.

The Human Rights Act consolidates and provides a philosophical context within which the Disability Discrimination Act might be interpreted. For instance, article 3 introduces "freedom from degrading treatment", article 8 the "right to respect for private and family life" and article 14 "freedom from discrimination".

There are no technical standards against which the DDA will be judged. There are, however, specific guidance documents with which architects will need to be familiar – such as the Building Bulletins, in particular, BB91 Access for Disabled People in School Buildings, BB93 Acoustic Design of Schools and BB94 Inclusive School Design. Sport England – Access for Disabled People and the Building Regulations, Part M are also important documents. The radically altered Part M outlines the minimum statutory requirement for access and has now been put in place.

The DDA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out day-to-day activities. This covers people with physical, sensory or cognitive impairments, and those with mental health issues. This could be a member of staff, a parent, pupil or a sportsperson using school facilities. In schools, pupils can be defined as having a special educational need that could relate to a disability covered by the legislation's definition, such as dyslexia or sensory loss, or for non-disabled pupils, that could relate, for instance, to English not being their first language.

Parents of disabled children often choose schools on the basis of accessibility, and schools whose premises and attitude are accessible will attract more disabled children. This could impact upon the successful operation of the school if provision is not made in the design for an increase in the number of disabled children attending.

When designing and specifying schools to comply with the DDA and other government legislation, the key areas to consider are:

Travel distances
How far do people have to travel around a school? Consider timetabling and changeover times. A strategic analysis is required for the location of curriculum areas, appropriate sanitary facilities and the correct location, size and number of lifts.

Flexible design for evolving legislation
Changes in case law, new technology and an increase in public expectation will require employers to continually re-evaluate their premises and management procedures. SENDA also requires that progressive improvements take place. This will be affected by changes in the make-up of the school population.

Key design features to consider in order to comply with current legislation and to accommodate future changes are:

  • Potential future lift positions or larger lift shafts
  • Suitable locations for future support bases such as wheelchair stores, specific medical rooms and drop-off points for wheelchair users
  • Sports facilities should be accessible. Can the changing facilities, for example, cope with two teams of wheelchair basketball players?
  • Parents should have access to sports fields so that they can watch their children
  • Acoustic performance must be of a high enough standard for hearing-impaired pupils and community members to use without problems
  • Access to IT in all classrooms
  • Lifts and toilets should be accessible out of hours if the community uses the school
  • Access to standard toilets, which should also have tonal contrast and ambulant cubicles
  • Resting zones should be provided in corridors every 50 m for those who need to rest
  • If applicable, a location for a poolside hoist should be identified
  • The installation of a floor drain within a larger accessible toilet to allow for a future shower.

Given the increasing reliance upon procurement methods that allow little time for design review, inclusion should form an integral part of the design process from the building's inception to its operational policies. Care needs to be taken in the tendering process. There should be clear guidance from the client on its expectations of the education building's functions.

Learn about the DDA

Aedas Access Consultancy is one of many organisations in the RIBA’s CPD Providers Network, which offer continuous professional development on various aspects of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA). Contact RIBA Enterprises for a complete list of DDA CPA providers. Aedas and RIBA are organising DDA Day, which is taking place at Interbuild on Tuesday 27 April 2004.

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