A broad legislative framework now supports the goal of promoting the full inclusion of people with disabilities in Irish society. The most relevant legislation in relation to the accessibility of school facilities is outlined below. The following is an introduction to the legal framework in this area, not a legal reference. It should not be interpreted as guidance or direction on legal matters.
Part M of the Building Regulations, published by the Department of Environment, Heritage & Local Government, applies to new buildings and to material alterations or extensions of existing buildings. Those who own, design, and construct buildings are primarily responsible for observing the requirements of the Building Regulations.
The revised 2010 Part M regulations require that: "Adequate provision shall be made for people to access and use a building, its facilities and its environs".
The revised version of the Part M regulations and associated Technical Guidance Document place significant additional obligations over and above earlier versions, including, for example, obligations regarding bathroom size, signage, car parking, and communication aids.
The Part M regulations set out the legal minimum facilities required. However, complying with these minimum requirements is not a guarantee that a building will meet all requirements for all students.
Equal Status Legislation
The Equal Status Acts 2000-2011 and the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2011 apply to all educational establishments, including primary and post-primary schools. The Acts prohibit discrimination across nine grounds, one of which is disability.
The Acts apply to people who attend or are in charge of educational establishments. They prohibit discrimination in relation to
- the admission, or the terms or conditions of admission
- the access of any student to any course, facility or benefit
- any other term or condition of participation in the school
- the expulsion of a student or other sanctions
The Acts require reasonable accommodation of people with disabilities. This means that a school must provide reasonable accommodation to meet the needs of a person with a disability if it would otherwise be impossible or unduly difficult for that person to participate in school without the special treatment, facilities or adjustments.
However, there is no obligation to provide special treatment, facilities or adjustments if they give rise to anything more than a 'nominal cost'. Reasonable accommodation could, for example, include improvements to a school premises to make it more accessible.
This is what the Equality Authority's publication 'Schools and the Equal Status Acts' has to say about nominal cost:
The meaning of 'nominal cost' will depend on the circumstances such as the size of and resources available to the organisation. A large and well-resourced organisation is more likely to be able to afford a higher level of cost in making reasonable accommodation than a small one is. As most schools are funded by the State, this would suggest the 'nominal cost' exemption may not be very significant in practice. If the State provides grants or other resources for assisting in providing special treatment or facilities, there may be an onus on the school to avail of these.
The Employment Equality Acts prohibit discrimination in employment and self-employment. This protection extends to teachers and other staff employed by the school, as well as to independent contractors. The Acts require the reasonable accommodation of employees - both teachers and other staff - with disabilities.
Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004
The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (EPSEN) Act states that a child with special educational needs shall be educated in an inclusive environment along with children who do not have special educational needs - unless it is not in the best interests of the child with special educational needs, or if it is inconsistent with the effective provision of education for the children with whom the child is to be educated.
The EPSEN Act defines the term 'special educational needs' as: "A restriction in the capacity of the person to participate in and benefit from education on account of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability, or any other condition which results in a person learning differently from a person without that condition".
The EPSEN Act promotes, and is informed by, the principle of inclusion. School design may potentially contribute to promoting inclusion through optimising all students' access to the school environment and removing unnecessary barriers to participation.
The requirements of the EPSEN Act cover a range of issues, including: the preparation of education plans by schools; assessment of children with special educational needs; the duties of schools; and the work of the National Council for Special Education.
Some of the provisions of the act have not commenced at the date of publication of this guide (2012).
The Disability Act 2005
The Disability Act 2005 obliges public bodies to ensure that their buildings and services are accessible to people with disabilities.
Some community schools and colleges are operated by Vocational Educational Committees which are public bodies. Some newer schools, particularly Gaelscoileanna and multi-denominational schools are owned by the Department of Education and leased to operating bodies.
Many other schools, such as parish schools, are not technically operated by public bodies, and the Disability Act 2005 does not apply to such schools.
The main provisions of the Disability Act for schools operated by public bodies for accessibility of the built environment are as follows:
- All public buildings owned or managed by public bodies are required to comply with 2000 Part M building regulations by 2015 and with subsequent amendments to Part M not later than 10 years after the commencement of the amendment (Section 25)
- There is a statutory requirement on public bodies to integrate their services for people with disabilities with those for other citizens, where practical and appropriate (Section 26)
- Public bodies are required to ensure that goods or services purchased are accessible, unless it would not be practicable or justifiable on cost grounds, or unless it would result in an unreasonable delay (Section 27)
- Communications by a public body to a person with hearing or vision loss must be provided in an accessible format as far as is practicable, following a request. Information provided electronically must, as far as is practicable, be compatible with adaptive technology. Published information that is relevant to persons with intellectual disabilities must, as far as is practicable, be made available in clear language that is easily understood (Section 28)
The National Disability Authority's statutory 'Code of Practice on Accessibility of Public Services and Information provided by Public Bodies' gives guidance to public bodies on meeting their obligations in relation to these requirements. Compliance with the Code of Practice is deemed to be compliance with the Disability Act.
Universal design is defined in the Disability Act 2005 as:
"The design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood and used:(i) to the greatest practicable extent;(ii) in the most independent and natural manner possible;(iii) in the widest possible range of situations and;(iv) without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions, by persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability, and means, in relation to electronic systems, any electronics-based process of creating products, services or systems so that they may be used by any person."
Management policies and procedures are very important in ensuring a universally accessible built environment.
Even the most accessible premises can quickly become inaccessible if, for example, boxes are left in circulation routes, or fittings and fixtures are not maintained.
Good management can also produce a marked improvement in the accessibility of a poorly designed building. Consulting with students with disabilities and their parents will provide an appreciation of the students' practical day-to-day needs. Amending the management and maintenance regimes will support and reflect those needs.
The main issues to be addressed are detailed in the following sections below:
- Leadership and planning
- Raising awareness
- Maintenance routines
- Monitoring and auditing
- Initiating new build projects
- Health and safety
Leadership and Planning
The Board of Management needs to clearly define and communicate the responsibility for managing the accessibility of the school environment. While accessibility should be part of everyone's job, it will benefit greatly from leadership by a key member of the management team.
By conducting periodic reviews of the accessibility of the building, and completing the required corrective actions, management can ensure that everyone can use the facilities.
Many of these actions will not be costly to fix. It may simply be a matter of moving obstructions, or finding appropriate storage, or disposing of obsolete furniture or equipment.
By using a universal design approach, accessibility features become an integral part of the building design: even people who use the building every day may not be aware of the importance of certain features in the environment to people with disabilities.
Provide information on accessibility
Providing information on accessibility will help raise awareness among staff, students, and their parents. It should also encourage all of the school's users to contribute to accessibility on an ongoing basis; for example, by ensuring that designated accessible parking is only used by those that need it, or by keeping access routes free of clutter that could cause obstruction.
Give accessibility details on school website
Providing information on the accessible features of a building and its grounds on the school website is useful for potential new students and first-time visitors to the school.
Ensure school trips are accessible
Ensuring accessibility of any activities or events that involve travelling outside school grounds will help all students to participate fully in school life. This would include educational trips, such as, visits to museums or theatres, visits to other schools, sports events, or work experience. It is also important to review the accessibility of the destination, and the transport to and from the destination, as part of the planning of any such activities.
Accessibility should be a key consideration when routine maintenance is being carried out, as it often presents an opportunity to improve the accessibility of a building. For example, when handrails are being painted, the colour selected should ensure good visual contrast between the handrail and the wall.
Good practice in maintenance routines include
- Regularly cleaning paths to remove debris, such as leaves, ice and snow, and ensuring that they are clear of obstructions such as bicycles and motor cycles
- Ensuring circulation routes are kept clear of obstructions
- Maintaining door closers to keep opening forces to a minimum
- Ensuring accessible toilets are not used for storing cleaning equipment or other materials
- Using clear and legible signage
- Updating signage when the way the building is used changes
Additional good practices for managing the accessibility of the school are detailed at the end of each section in this document.
For further guidance on managing accessibility in buildings, refer to the National Disability Authority publication 'Access Handbook Template, A Tool to Help Manage the Accessibility of the Built Environment'.
Monitoring and Auditing
An access audit is one of the first steps to be taken when making improvements for access to the built environment. It involves an inspection and assessment of a building and its external environment by an access expert in relation to its ease of use by everybody, particularly people with disabilities. A quality access audit requires a skilled and experienced access auditor.
Access audits identify elements of a school environment that may cause barriers to its use and suggest how these could be improved.
Some of these items may be fixed by changing how the building is managed or maintained. For example, if the transfer space in an accessible bathroom is blocked by cleaning equipment, there will need to be a new arrangement made with the cleaners to make sure this space is kept clear. Other elements may require building work, which can involve obtaining planning permission for larger works.
Consider carrying out an access audit, and developing an action plan to implement its recommendations. The action plan could then be added to the school plan.
An access audit may need to be reviewed over time, particularly if the building has been changed or extended, or if its use has changed. The action plan should prioritise the areas that need improvement, and set out a time-scale for making the required improvements.
For further guidance on access auditing, refer to the National Disability Authority publication 'Guidelines on Access Auditing of the Built Environment'.
If it is not possible to engage an experienced access auditor, consider taking a 'self-assessment' approach to reviewing the accessibility of the school facilities. A self-assessment approach can be useful as a first step to identifying the scale and scope of accessibility issues to be addressed within the school.
As with any audit, using an external person to carry out a self-assessment audit can be helpful. It can be difficult to audit your own facility with the same rigor as would someone seeing it for the first time with a fresh pair of eyes.
There are a number of self-assessment checklists available on the Internet. Some of the checklists from UK local authorities, such as the Essex Schools Interlink network, may be helpful to Irish schools although legislation and building regulations may differ. See http://www.essex.gov.uk for more information.
New Build Projects
New buildings and extensions provide a great opportunity to go beyond the legal minimum and really accommodate the needs of many students - without incurring significant additional costs over and above an alternative building project. The school can provide access for everybody who will use the school facilities by using universal design principles and best practices.
In the case of a 'new build' project, it is important that accessibility is highlighted at the earliest possible stage. It should form a key part of the initial design brief, and it should be part of the criteria used to select the design team and the developer.
The Board of Management should designate a person with direct responsibility for the accessibility of the project. This person may need to get expert professional advice from an expert in accessibility or universal design. School staff, students and parents will be a valuable source of information to guide the design of a new facility.
Accessibility should be monitored and reviewed throughout the lifetime of the project. Formal access audits may be required at key stages to check that accessibility has been achieved.
Health and Safety
The guidance in this document reflects the large overlap between designing for accessibility and for health and safety. Improving the accessibility of an environment often results in improved health and safety for all users. This is one of the benefits of a universally-accessible approach.
Examples of this overlap include:
- Designing traffic management and pedestrian routes at the approaches to schools to meet the needs of students with disabilities and improve safety for all users
- Providing markings on glazed doors and screens to assist people with vision loss to identify the glazing, and reduce the chances of accidents for all building users
- Ensuring that emergency communication systems, such as inter-class telephones, public address systems or personal emergency alarms, can be used and understood by all
- Incorporating handrails, larger steps, and highlighted nosings on stairs to meet the needs of people with mobility disabilities or vision loss makes the stairs safer for all users