Wednesday 30 November 2011

How to adapt a school for a visually impaired child

All educational establishments are now required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure students with disabilities or learning difficulties are not discriminated against or placed at a substantial disadvantage in any area of school life and associated services. No institution that provides education can treat someone who is disabled less favourably than anyone else because of their disability. By law a person cannot be refused entry because of a disability, nor refused appropriate teaching materials.

The fact that children with disabilities have strong legal rights makes it particularly important that schools have accurate, appropriate and precise advice from specialists. I want to point out here what I consider reasonable adjustments for a school to make in anticipation of a visually impaired child attending the school.

Corridors, Stairs and Steps
Most schools have stairs or steps either indoors or outdoors. In these areas there are several aspects to consider when thinking of someone with low vision, such as adequate and appropriate lighting, safety handrails, edges of steps, 71 colour contrast, trip hazards, adequate space for traffic and direction signage. Let me deal with these in turn.

Lighting in and around corridors and stairs
Some visually impaired people have difficulty when there is a sudden change in light conditions. People with albinism, for instance, who are significantly light sensitive, take three times longer than others to adapt to a change in lighting conditions. This means that if the ceiling lights in a part of the staircase are blown such a person will be temporarily blinded until their eyes are accustomed to the darker conditions. In the same way if the stairs open out into an area which is well lit by natural window light and the area is south facing, on a sunny day there may be too much light and the person with albinism will again be blinded by glare for a minute or two while their eyes adjust. These are issues that we do not often consider but it affects one in 17 thousand people with albinism every day. In fact many people with a visual impairment are affected by glare or low light so these things need to be considered carefully. In an ideal world architects would have considered this when planning the building but we are not living in an ideal world.

Handrails should be on both sides of the stairs, especially if the stairs are wide enough for people to pass in both directions. This is a building regulations requirement. Handrails should be at the correct height. Some nurseries and primary schools fail in this respect as their handrails are adult height and not accessible for smaller people. It is advisable in these circumstances to fit an extra handrail at a lower height. Handrails should also be easily visible. This means they should not be the same colour as the wall; they should contrast in their colour and tone with the background. If the wall is white, handrails should be dark. If the wall is dark the handrails should be a light colour.

Edges of steps
At the top and bottom of a staircase or a flight of steps, whether it is inside or outside, there is an acute safety issue for someone with poor distance vision, a squint, monocular vision, or poor lower visual field. Spatial location is a common difficulty for children with a visual impairment. Locating the feet on steps and stairs can be a difficulty initially. I would say that it is good practice to introduce a child to a building with no others around so they can familiarise themselves with difficulties and commit to memory navigational and orientation cues. People generally learn routes quickly and it is not unusual for a child to require adult help initially only on one or two occasions. The trained mobility officer is able to provide input if necessary, but even then an assessment of mobility needs and perhaps one session with a child may be enough. Of course if the child is registered blind they may need ongoing support.
A school can take some basic precautions which ought to need updating once a year at most. Putting markings on the nosings of steps and stairs is good practice. Some form of contrasting tape or yellow paint can be put on the edge of each step or stair. If something more permanent is required a wooden staircase can have a contrasting section fitted to the edges. Outside on stone steps weatherproof paint is available for this purpose. Another strategy that is often used is a tactile strip starting about a metre from the edge to warn someone of the proximity of the top and bottom of the stairs. This would be a small area of flooring that is different from the surroundings and easily sensed by the feet on the approach to the stairs.

By signage I mean room numbers fixed on or adjacent to doors and direction signs to places such as toilets, exits, library, reception and canteen. Light switches and door handles, though not technically signs, also should be clearly visible. A coloured switch box on a contrasting plain background and a door frame in contrasting paint is a sensible strategy for ease of access. Signs need to be at a child’s height for good access. They need to be large, by which I mean at least two or three inches in height. They should contrast by colour with the background. Arrow signs also need to be large and contrasting and positioned at the right height. Signs need to separate from other markings on the wall.

Arrow signs for directions or ‘KEEP LEFT’ signs on the staircase is good practice in a school, especially where space is limited in corridors and children are prone to bumping into things. Keeping children walking on the left side of the stairs may need to be reinforced. A young child in a kindergarten or nursery may need their clothes peg differentiated by colour coding and larger signage and perhaps located at the end of a row rather than in the middle. The same applies to storage lockers where such exist; they should be located for ease of access and differentially marked.

It is important that floors are kept clear from clutter and obstacles in any space where children move around, which includes classrooms. Trailing power leads on the floor can be a trip hazard. Obviously dangerous sharp corners on furniture in a nursery can be covered or rounded off with a sander.

Safety signs
In technology classrooms specialist equipment should be clearly and boldly marked with appropriate warning signs, such as ‘do not use without adult supervision’, ‘danger – scalding water’, or ‘danger – electricity’.

Contrast in furniture
An important aspect of the rooms used by children involves the contrast in colours of the furniture. Accessibility is enhanced when tables, chairs and storage cupboards are in contrasting colours to the background. Toilets and washrooms also should have contrasting furniture.

Lighting in classrooms
Flexible lighting in classrooms is good practice. In any classroom it ought to be possible to turn off some lights but not all. The light over the interactive white board for instance often needs to be off when projecting as otherwise it reduces visibility on the board. Variable lighting is a good idea. Spotlights may be helpful where possible; some people find fluorescent lighting uncomfortable. All classrooms should have blackout facilities to vary lighting levels and cut out glare. Too much or too little lighting can both be bad, but in my view too much light is better than too little. I have been in very modern school buildings where lighting is extremely bright and I have to say I prefer that to some old school buildings where the opposite is the case. In point of fact tinted glasses can be worn indoors by a child who is sensitive to glare. Reactolite lenses are the ideal solution sometimes as they adapt to changing light conditions. On the other hand a dedicated task lamp on the floor or on the desk in a dimly lit older style classroom building can make a big difference to some children. Many of the old school buildings in Britain have high ceilings and woefully inadequate lighting. Windows provide natural light but not enough to read by in most cases. I often carry a light meter when visiting schools to measure light levels and give advice. Light is measured by lux. Building regulations legislation gives guidelines on lighting levels which head teachers and governing bodies should be aware of. Under English law, the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1999, the illumination of teaching accommodation must be 300 lux or more at any point on the work surface - this is usually appropriate in classrooms, libraries and halls. However, the illumination must not be less than 500 lux where visually demanding tasks are carried out, for example, in laboratories.

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