Introduction

This document suggests ways of designing and managing school buildings to improve accessibility for students with disabilities.

It begins by defining some terminology and exploring the background to this document. It then moves on to look at the legislation about accessibility in schools, and how school management can take practical steps to proceed.

This guidance is intended as a 'good practice' guide for the design of new schools and improvements to existing schools. It features sections on the external environment, school entrances, internal circulation, evacuation, other facilities, and classrooms. Additional good practices for managing the accessibility of the school are detailed at the end of each section.

The guidance will help schools to manage the limitations of existing buildings and facilities. It will also be particularly useful for schools engaged in refurbishment and new-build projects. While this document has been compiled with mainstream primary and post-primary schools in mind, much of the content is also relevant for special schools.

This document does not provide detailed technical specifications on accessibility features. Throughout the document and in the Further Reading section, there are signposts to where that level of detail is available. Building for Everyone (2012) is the National Disability Authority's comprehensive guide to the detail design of buildings. It is available for free download from http://universaldesign.ie/buildingforeveryone.

The guidance in this document focuses on the needs of students with disabilities. However, students are not the only people to use the school building. Teachers and administration staff, parents, visiting students, and those who use the school outside of core hours all have particular requirements. A 'universal design' approach allows all users to make use of the services available in the school building.

A 'universal design' approach to school design will ensure that the school can be accessed, understood and used

  • to the greatest possible extent
  • in the most independent and natural manner possible
  • in the widest range of situations, and
  • without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions

This document is not designed to address all possible barriers for students with disabilities taking part in school life. There may well be issues around curriculum design, staff training, access to personal care, interpretation services, and access to information that go beyond the scope of this publication.

Terminology

This document uses the term 'students with disabilities' to include students with special educational needs and those students with particular needs around accessing the built environment.

Barriers

Participation in quality education is important for all young people as it provides a cornerstone for social inclusion over their lifetime. Education is a key influence on life factors such as job prospects, earnings, and poverty risk.

A wide body of research has demonstrated that people with disabilities have fewer educational qualifications than non-disabled people in their age group. This leads to a double disadvantage, where economic prospects are reduced both by disability status and by lower levels of education. As educational underachievement is more prevalent for people with disabilities from childhood rather than for those whose disability arose later in life, having a disability during school or college years is clearly a factor in this underachievement.

Barriers to education identified by students with disabilities in 'Hidden Voices' (Kenny et. al., 2000), included inaccessible transport, buildings and facilities within the school. For example, inappropriate bench height and inaccessible laboratory equipment meant that students with disabilities were unable to participate fully in science or other practical classes. Some students with vision loss reported difficulties in finding their way round the school because of a lack of handrails on stairs and corridors. Therefore the problem of inaccessible school buildings is a real concern for many students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities will have certain unique requirements that impact how they use school facilities.

For example

  • Students with mobility disabilities may have particular difficulties with steps, or heavy doors. They may need additional desk space if they use a wheelchair, or additional storage space for a walking frame or crutches
  • Students with visual difficulties will benefit from improved lighting and clear visual contrasts on doorframes and support columns
  • Some students with emotional, psychological or mental health difficulties will benefit from a calming environment created by appropriate use of light and colour schemes
  • Many students have particular requirements for access to laptop computers or other assistive technology. Availability of power points for recharging will greatly benefit these students

Useful Resources

This publication draws on relevant guidance from other Irish and international publications.

The Planning and Building Unit of the Department of Education and Skills has published useful Technical Guidance Documents on school design.

The following publications are particularly relevant in relation to accessibility:

  • TGD-020 - General Design Guidelines for Schools (Primary & Post-primary) - Revision 1 October 2011
  • TGD-022 - Primary School Design Guidelines revision 2 August 2010
  • TGD-023 - Post-primary School Design Guidelines

The National Disability Authority revised series 'Building for Everyone - a Universal Design approach' gives detailed technical guidance in relation to good practice in making all types of buildings easy to use for all. This publication is available free of charge at http://universaldesign.ie/buildingforeveryone.