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Helping light disabled people will help us all

Last week I was watching a lecture by Professor Arnold Wilkins on YouTube. He is an expert on the effects of lighting flicker on the brain. About 3 minutes in, he spoke about flicker from 100 and 120 hz fluorescent lighting, causing eye strain and headaches and interfering with eye movements. He went on to say that 80 per cent of schools are still lit with this lighting. [1]

This reminded me of a project I manged almost twenty ago examining the implications of sending children with special educational needs to mainstream schools. The ‘presumption of mainstreaming’ in the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc. Act 2000, meant that children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) were to be educated within mainstream schools unless there was good reason why they shouldn’t.

The school’s inspectorate kindly seconded six specialist school inspectors to the project team. These inspectors visited schools to look for good practice in the inclusion of children with particular needs that could be shared more widely across Scotland.

One case study concerned the inclusion of children with autism in mainstream classes. Such children are very sensitive to their environment and have delicate sensory systems. This means that their senses, including sight and hearing can easily become overloaded. They have particular problems with persistent sounds such as ticking clocks and flickering fluorescent lights, which can cause problems ranging from eyestrain to seeing a room pulsate. Good practice schools adopted measures to reduce stress on these pupils by lowering noise levels, installing flicker free lighting and by creating low sensory ‘safe’ rooms in case things became too much.

One of our most important findings was that these measures led to improved levels of attainment for all pupils “Some adaptations will benefit all pupils in the school regardless of whether they have SEN, for example, all pupils will benefit from a quieter environment if classrooms are carpeted, other adaptations will benefit pupils with particular impairments.” [2] This isn’t rocket science, why wouldn’t one expect pupils to do better in quieter, better lit classrooms.

So why then do we accept bad lighting in schools and almost everywhere else?

For example, the NHS is planning to change all hospital lighting to LEDs. It is already known that critically ill patients in ICU have severely abnormal circadian rhythms and these are associated with prolonged stays and increased mortality, due to factors such as alarm noise and the 24-hour lighting required for staff to monitor equipment. The problem is that in many hospitals built under PFI, lighting costs are borne by private sector facilities management companies concerned only with profit. Consequently, many hospitals have bad lighting, which make some people ill and do nothing to help patients get better. Good lighting could help reduce hospital stays and pay for itself.

Similarly, care home residents are often exposed to varying levels of artificial light at all hours of the day and night, lading to disrupted sleep-wake patterns, sleep disturbance, irritability, anxiety and wandering. Researchers in the US tailored lighting depending on where patients spent most of their time during the day to stimulate the body’s circadian rhythm. At the end of four weeks, sleep disturbance and depression scores patients declined significantly and after six months, sleep disturbance scores were lowered by about half and depression scores less than half of baseline levels.

These examples show that good-quality lighting is important for the health of  all, including the very young and very old. Why then do we tolerate mediocre lighting in schools, hospitals and other public buildings. We need to see lighting as more than a just a utility whose cost is to be minimised but as a critical component of our environment that can help make us happier and healthier.

We need to call out junk lighting wherever it is installed and consign it to the dustbin of failed technology.

[1] Society of Light and Lighting LR&T Symposium 2018 – Arnold Wilkins Ph.D.

[2] Moving to mainstream – The inclusion of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools p35

By Dr John Lincoln
Blogs are written by LightAware supporters in a personal capacity

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