Sue Hurrell outlines the steps her daughter’s school took to ensure it is wheelchair accessible
Three years ago, I wrote an article for SEN Magazine (SEN79 Nov/Dec 2015) about our struggle to get accessible toilets installed in our daughter’s primary school in Cardiff. We got there in the end, and the experience prompted me to do lots of research, which revealed that around half of Cardiff’s high schools, at that time, could not cater for children who use wheelchairs. This led me to campaign for better facilities for wheelchair-users in Welsh schools, including some work with the Children’s Commissioner for Wales.
Fast-forward three years and Imogen is now at high school, where she is really happy. She couldn’t wait to get back after the summer holidays and into year nine. We had visited lots of schools before deciding which one was best and she had come with us. How she felt about each school was clearly linked to whether she met other children who used wheelchairs, and how well the staff engaged with her as we visited, instead of just talking to us as parents.
Imogen has learning needs as well as cerebral palsy and whilst she had been happy at her mainstream primary school, it had become clear that she would struggle to keep up with both the work and the other children in a mainstream high school. When we started looking into our options it was hard to get objective information about the quality of teaching in special schools, and resource bases in mainstream schools, as it was hard to find recent inspection reports on the Estyn (Welsh Ofsted) website, and the mainstream school reports rarely included any information about their resource bases. So we had to rely on our instincts and how each school engaged with us and with Imogen, and this was a mixed experience. On one occasion she got back into the car and said she definitely wasn’t going to that school! By contrast, her first visit to her current school was a success, and this was partly because they had taken the time to think about how she would feel: she was shown around by one of the wheelchair-using students, and this really made her feel at home.
Children who have disabilities so often have to put up with being talked over and discussed as though they are not present, have no feelings, and are simply a collection of problems rather than a person. This tends to happen more often in a health context but can happen with teaching staff as well. I will always be drawn to a professional who engages with my child first, and then with me afterwards, someone who uses language that is sensitive to her feelings and that she can understand.
A smooth transition
I was so anxious about Imogen’s transition from primary school: I worried about her taxi journeys, and that I would no longer meet her at school at the end of each day and be able to resolve any problems. The school had only recently become wheelchair-accessible, partly as a result of my earlier campaign, and most of the staff who were due to teach and care for Imogen had not worked with a wheelchair user before.
In fact, the transition could not have been more straightforward. The process was detailed and Imogen got to know the staff and other children before starting. They went through every practical challenge in detail with us and with relevant professionals to make sure they achieved the balance between keeping her safe and encouraging her to become more independent. Moving from a mainstream classroom, where she was always struggling to keep up physically and academically, to a school where others are learning at her pace, has worked really well for her, and there were very few difficulties for us to discuss and resolve.
The accessible site meant that she was able to switch to mainly using a powered wheelchair, which has given her so much freedom and independence. She can also walk very short distances in her walking frame, and the school has appreciated the long-term importance of ensuring she takes a short walk each day to maintain her strength and flexibility. Although we’ve had some issues to address along the way, these have been surprisingly few and far between.
The main school buildings date back to the 1930s, with entrances up several steps and classrooms on different floors in one of the buildings. The work required to make the school accessible was expensive and difficult. A central courtyard with classrooms around it was raised in its entirety to provide level access, and several large accessible toilets were built. A lift was installed in the tower block, and plenty of disabled parking spaces marked out.
The work was completed in time for the first wheelchair user to join the school just four years ago, and now there are at least seven children who use wheelchairs, in both the special resource base and the mainstream school, as well as a member of staff. Further projects have been completed as the wheelchair users have moved up through the school year groups. More recently, I helped the school with a bid to fund an accessible minibus, which is making it easier to organise transport for trips.
Involving pupils and families
Perhaps most importantly of all, the school also involves students in reviewing the accessibility of the site and facilities, and this helps them identify opportunities for improvement. The importance of this was emphasised by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales in her most recent report, Full Lives, Equal Access. In it she emphasised children’s rights, and particularly the right to be listened to:
“Without listening to children and their families, it’s difficult to see how authorities can effectively assess the provision they currently have in place, or plan improvements.
“The needs of disabled children are much more than ramps and rails; there are often issues that will be unique to individuals that can only be understood through dialogue with young people and their parents.
“If we want all children and young people to succeed, we must empower them to shape the environments in which they learn.”
On the day that the report was launched, the Commissioner visited Imogen’s school to meet her and her friends and include them in the media launch. Imogen was so excited to be part of it and gained such a lot from the experience.
This has been a really positive story for us, but I am aware from our own past experience, from my research and from families I am in contact with, that children with physical disabilities are still frequently denied the chance to attend the same schools as their siblings and friends. This has life-long consequences for a child and impoverishes a whole community.
Our positive experience would not have been possible had Imogen’s school not taken those initial steps to agree that wheelchair-accessibility was important; that inclusion isn’t only a nice concept but needs to follow through into practical action; that money spent to make a school accessible for the first child isn’t disproportionate, because it paves the way for so many others to follow along afterwards; and that an inclusive environment benefits the whole community.
Dr Sue Hurrell is Vice-Chair of the charity Contact, which supports families of children with disabilities. She is also an independent campaigner for disability equality, especially for schools. Her eldest daughter uses a wheelchair and attends a secondary school in Cardiff: