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Among the thousands of demountable classrooms used in NSW schools, many are inaccessible to parents with disabilities. So why is the Education Department ignoring building codes that require higher standards? By Tim Rushby-Smith.

Inaccessible classrooms in NSW schools

My son was excited for the first day of school this year, eager to introduce me to his new teacher and show me around his new classroom. It really was brand new, just constructed over the summer holidays, complete with air-conditioning and a touchscreen whiteboard. But as we approached the new building, my son realised I would not be coming inside. His new classroom was a demountable, which came with five steps up to its door, and I am a wheelchair user.

The principal was mortified and very apologetic. In the complicated process of allocating classrooms, access hadn’t even crossed her mind. As we sought to find a local solution to the problem, though, I found myself coming back to the same question – why is the Education Department commissioning new buildings that are not wheelchair accessible?

My son’s classroom is just one of 5000 “demountable classrooms” across New South Wales. These temporary structures were originally intended to be a stopgap measure to deal with an influx of students. However, more than two thirds of the demountable classrooms in NSW are more than 20 years old. And each year, many more are built or refurbished – by the prison service – for schools across the state.

It’s a complex task, trying to trace the planning process back for these structures. School buildings aren’t subject to the same development application assessment as most structures. Instead, they fall under the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) 2017. Under the SEPP, “one-storey short-term portable classrooms and amenities buildings” are exempt from planning approval, provided certain development standards are met. This means schools have a wide scope to erect structures within their grounds. And the most recent version of SEPP, which came into effect in September 2017, allows for many more aspects of school development to be undertaken without consultation.

Curious as to whether my son’s classroom should have access for people with a disability, I contacted the Education Department and was told that while it was policy to provide access for students with a disability, no such policy existed with regard to parents and carers. This clearly contradicts SEPP, which says that any building constructed under the legislation has to comply with the Building Code of Australia. “To and within all areas normally used by the occupants,” the section reads, with occupants defined as all people who use the building, which in this case would include not only students but also teachers, carers and parents.

“It looks like the Education Department is still using the education standard that was made under the Disability Discrimination Act and not acknowledging that the Access to Premises Standard 2010 overrides it,” says John Moulang, a senior access consultant at Morris Goding Access Consulting, referring to the federal legislation introduced in 2011 that exists over and above the SEPP guidelines.

Many schools across the state are housed in buildings that predate the 2010 Access to Premises Standard but, whenever demountable classrooms are moved between sites and refurbished in the process, they become a new building insofar as planning and access laws are concerned. In the case of my son’s school, the two demountables installed this year are considered new. And yet the steps installed on his classroom don’t even meet minimum standards – they have no contrast strips for people with visual impairments and there is no smooth, continuous handrail to help those with mobility issues.

“Regardless of the current legislation, the fact that a child, staff member or a parent can’t access an essential part of a school is just wrong,” says Moulang.

In May this year, the government architect for NSW published the Design Guide for Schools, which includes a number of specific references to access including that “school buildings and their grounds should provide good wayfinding and be welcoming, accessible and inclusive to people with differing needs and capabilities” and “new school development should ensure accessibility for all users of the site”.

These sentiments are echoed in the Educational Facilities Standards and Guidelines, also published by the NSW Department of Education, which stipulates that access for people with disabilities must be provided for “all new schools, new buildings in existing schools and areas of major refurbishments”.

When asked about the issue of access to demountable classrooms, NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes provided the following statement: “The government takes its responsibility to make schools accessible for students and staff seriously, and significant funding is allocated to this each year.

“Many of NSW public schools were built prior to accessibility requirements and the adjustments needed to make buildings accessible are often at a significant cost. Work on school buildings to make them accessible, including heritage buildings and demountable classrooms, will occur as required,” the minister noted. “While the government builds new schools and upgrades existing schools to current Australian Standards and Building Code of Australia requirements, gradually more and more school facilities are being made accessible.”

However, the widespread use of steps on new demountable classrooms clearly demonstrates that the relevant codes are not being adhered to. “It’s really important to acknowledge that the people in schools and even in the [education] department don’t have a hidden agenda,” says John Moulang. “But they should know what legislation exists … It’s a point of law.”

Among disability organisations in NSW, there is growing frustration with the Education Department’s approach. Stephanie Gotlib, CEO of Children and Young People with Disability Australia (CYDA), sees practice clearly at odds with departmental policy.

“CYDA has consulted with the NSW Department Education significantly in recently times regarding establishing and progressing reform for students with disability … One of the areas identified as a focus of reform by the department was ‘school design’,” she says. “Demountable classrooms with step-only access clearly don’t align with any definition of inclusive education. Nor do they accord with legislative responsibilities and obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

John Moulang says citing specific needs and expense is a common response when access issues are discussed, but it betrays an outdated approach.

“Social awareness is broadening to accept the high and growing volume of people with a disability and starting to expand awareness across multiple aspects of disability such as mobility, sensory and cognitive,” he says. “The ‘new’ Parliament House opened only 30 years ago, but no consideration was given to the possibility that a person with a disability would ever sit in the house, or even visit. The focus has now significantly shifted from ‘What’s wrong with the person?’ to ‘What’s wrong with the building?’ Our communities and built environments need to be fully inclusive to be whole and complete, and reach beyond minimum compliance, not ‘get away with’ compliance. A question to old thinking: ‘Was the Spitfire ever more valuable than the pilot?’

“Access to a classroom – temporary or permanent – that is built after May 2011 is required to be fully accessible for all, as required by the [Disability Discrimination Act] 1992. For classrooms built before that date, where access is not provided, the school or department will need to retrofit access – at least for the user who requires it.”

The issue is one Paralympic gold medallist Kurt Fearnley, AO, will soon be facing, as his children approach school age. As will many parents with a disability, given NSW schools are facing a student population increase of about 200,000 in the next 10 years.

Citing his travel experiences as an athlete, Fearnley points out what can be achieved if the will is there. “If you can make the Acropolis accessible, surely it’s possible to make a demountable classroom accessible. Every child deserves to have their parent be able to come into their classroom,” he says. “I recently visited the former Female Orphan School [now home to the Whitlam Institute] in Parramatta. The building dates back to 1813 and they have made the whole place fully accessible in a way that has added to the beauty of the building.

“It’s high time that we started thinking long term and made all-access issues a thing of the past.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 22, 2018 as "Access denied". Subscribe here.

Tim Rushby-Smith
is a freelance journalist based on the South Coast of NSW, and author of Looking Up and Beyond the Break.