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How to make school buildings more accessible

Design, policies, and products can increase accessibility beyond ADA requirements
Accordian-style lifts work well in multipurpose rooms or gyms, where balls or other objects cannot be trapped under the machine.
Accordian-style lifts work well in multipurpose rooms or gyms, where balls or other objects cannot be trapped under the machine.

Products such as automatic doors, mechanical lifts, and low, touchless trough sinks increase accessibility in schools. Design elements can also increase accessibility beyond ADA requirements, says Karen Braitmayer, an accessibility consultant.

“A big trend right now is school buildings that have a clarity of organization,” she says. “Good wayfinding is useful to students with cognitive, hearing, and sight impairments.”

Good wayfinding includes lines of sight not blocked by tall poles or plants, colors or textures that identify different wings, and a lot of light. There should be as few doors as possible, and halls should flow into common spaces like gyms and cafeterias. Bathroom stalls should be large enough for a student and an aide, she says.

Accessibility throughout the entire building should be the goal, but it is not always possible or even required. Districts with tight budgets should hire an accessibility consultant to ensure renovations or new buildings will be ADA compliant, says Bob Gammon, principal consultant for American Disabilities Consultants, Inc.

“What many people don’t realize is that entire buildings do not need to be ADA compliant,” he says. “If a first floor science lab is accessible, the second floor lab doesn’t have to be. A consultant can help guide district leaders through these decisions in order to maximize funds.”

The history of accessibility

Understanding how the many laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities apply to a district is essential when building or renovating a school. Federal regulations are exacting, so that all students, regardless of needs, can receive a vibrant education.

While there have been three relevant laws since 1968, only the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, offers all students “equal opportunity” under the law.

Starting with the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) of 1968, new buildings constructed with federal funds were required to meet the most current federal standards for physical accessibility.

Today’s most current standards require space in classrooms for wheelchair seating and accessible bathrooms that are at least five by five feet in area with a toilet no higher than 17 inches.

The 1973 Rehabilitation Act prohibited programs receiving federal assistance, including schools, from discriminating on the basis of disability. An example of discrimination would be not providing Braille texts to students who have vision impairments. Denying access to extracurricular activities—such as not providing a route to a stage for wheelchair-bound students—is also discrimination, Braitmayer says.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 requires that public schools provide a free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities in an environment that is appropriate to their individual needs. “The Rehab Act and IDEA didn’t adequately cover the school buildings themselves,” Braitmayer says. “School districts were not specifically required to alter existing buildings to accommodate students with disabilities.”

Under ADA, which was last revised in 2010, school buildings must be designed to provide students and staff with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from all services. Design that is exclusionary, such as door frames that are too narrow for wheelchairs to pass through, is prohibited.

Buildings constructed prior to 1990 were not exempted, which meant schools were required to retrofit facilities that did not meet the standards.

“Common barriers that needed to be addressed included no accessible route to enter or move from floor to floor, inaccessible restrooms, doors with heavy closing force that were difficult to open, and a lack of an accessible route onto auditorium stages,” Braitmayer says.

In addition, many classrooms had furnishings that prevented students who used mobility devices from moving around freely, Braitmayer says.

Additional problems were desks that could not be adjusted by height and coat hooks and shelves that were too high for students in wheelchairs.

Creating equal access

f the 5 percent of students in American schools with a disability, approximately 1 percent have an ambulatory difficulty, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data. A portable, compact lift, such as one that LIFT-U provides, can assist students in wheelchairs or those who have trouble climbing stairs. It may also be a more practical option to installing bulky, space-consuming wheelchair ramps for stages and other raised platforms.

The best lifts can be operated by the student, says Renee Bogar, assistant sales manager for Ascension, a wheelchair lift manufacturer. When using an Ascension lift, a student only needs to push one button to rise to a stage. This can boost a student’s self-esteem and sense of independence. It also eliminates the need for additional staff members to help. Only students with extreme motor impairments may need help pushing the lift button, she says.

Ascension’s Virtuoso lift can reach stages up to 60 inches high, says Bogar. “It has accordion skirting that rises when the lift does, preventing any students or objects from ever being underneath the lift,” Bogar says. The portable Virtuoso costs about $24,000.

Another option is the Ascension portable Protege, which costs $19,000 and lifts students up to stages 42 inches high. Instead of the accordion skirting, the Protege has sensors that automatically stop the lift if a student darts underneath. Such safety features are essential for multipurpose rooms, says Jay Goodspeed, Ascension’s inside sales rep line supervisor. “When students are running around and playing, it’s easy for a ball to roll under a lift and a student, without thinking, to run after it,” he explains. “Sensor stoppers or accordion skirting prevent accidents.”

When shopping for a lift, Goodspeed advises one that doesn’t make much noise. “Loud lifts can disrupt presentations being given and embarrass the student using the lift,” he says.

School officials also may prefer lifts that are easy to set up. One person can move an Ascension lift into place in just a few minutes, Goodspeed says. With a swivel wheel in each of the four corners, Ascension lifts are balanced and easy to transport from a storage closet to the area of need. When the lift is ready to be used, the swivel wheels are simply popped off by hand, without the need for tools. Braun also offers several wheelchair lifts for school busess, depending on the platform size and floor-to-ground height.

Accessible playtime

With the 2010 ADA revisions came a requirement that, by March 2012, school playgrounds must be accessible to students with disabilities. Companies such as Playworld Systems Inc., focus on designing playgrounds that are accessible to students with both mobility and cognitive impairment. “Our products are built on the principle of multiple levels of challenge,” says Ian Proud, research director for Playworld Systems.

Motor skills are the basis for Playworld’s levels of challenge, from level one (not very challenging) to level four (highly challenging). To maximize opportunities for students with disabilities to play with other children, Proud advises placing a level one product, such as an accessible slide, next to or near a product with a higher level of challenge, such as a concave climbing structure.

“Kids can have fun together while doing activities that match their level of mobility,” Proud says.

Some products even combine multiple levels of challenge, Proud says. The AeroGlider is a rocker with two huge seats that face in. Up to two wheelchair users can ride at once with several of their friends sitting inside or hanging off the outside. Another example is the Triumph Climber, which combines level three and level one challenges into one climbing structure.

Removing barriers for learning

Part of providing accessibility includes addressing the needs of students with learning disabilities. “There needs to be more education for teachers on diagnosing learning disabilities,” says Paul Edelblut, vice president of education solutions for Learning Ally, a distributor of audio books for the reading- and sight-impaired. “Twenty percent of people have a printed-word disability, yet only 5 percent of students in schools are given that diagnosis.”

Increasing official diagnoses means more students can get the help they need from their district, he says.

Something else that helps companies like Learning Ally provide access to students with learning disabilities is the Chafee Amendment. The law, which was enacted in 1996, says companies don’t have to pay royalties when making books and other copyrighted content accessible, he says.

“This has allowed us to make content available that we previously could not to students with blindness and dyslexia,” Edelblut says.

Kylie Lacey is special projects editor.