Working Towards Wheelchair Accessible Schools

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This article is dedicated to Andy Carpenter. A wheelchair bound polio victim from my elementary school, who never let her limitations become disabilities or affect her enthusiasm for life.
No child left behind.

That is the current educational thrust created by Federal Law in 2001. The question is does it include those bound to wheelchairs? Education for all cannot be guaranteed when the school has no wheelchair access and making some schools wheelchair accessible can be an expensive proposition. Wheelchair bound students can receive an education comparable to their peers, however not necessarily in their local school or charter school of their choice.

The laws that govern accessibility to public schools (Title II ADA1990 ) and other facilities are based on different standards than those that govern private facilities (Title III ADA 1990) such that at the current time there private schools are generally more accountable than public. These laws are complicated and depend on when actual construction of a facility began, but the bottom line is that “providing program accessibility is not expected to result in undue burdens formost public entities.”(see Pacer Center Champions for Children with Disabilities

What does this mean? When a school must make structural improvements to an existing building such as creating ramps or installing elevators, such improvements are not required if accessibility can be provided through other means such as providing the education at a different accessible site, relocating a class or activity to a different room or having staff bring materials such as library books to the accessible location of the student. Basically, schools are not required to make changes that require any undue financial burden as long as the student can receive the same education as a non wheelchair bound student. When it is found that providing accessible features is disproportionally expensive, the elements to be considered to provide the greatest access should be made in the following order of importance: an accessible entrance; an accessible route to the altered area; at least one accessible restroom for each sex or a single unisex restroom; accessible telephones; accessible drinking fountains and when possible, additional elements such as parking.

What can schools do to make their schools wheelchair accessible and provide an education for all? Once access to the building has been accomplished, we need to consider access to the various other facilities. In most schools the doorways to the classrooms are already sufficiently wide to allow a wheelchair to enter. (Doorways need to be at least thirty-six inches wide to allow entry for a wheelchair.) The aisles in the classroom must also adhere to this space standard. This may be difficult in classrooms with thirty or more students and one way to circumvent the obstacle is to place wheelchair accessible tables or desks near the classroom door or on the perimeter of the desk configuration. This brings up another important point in that it is difficult for a student to work without a wheelchair accessible table or desk. There are currently many styles available so that it is possible to find a work station similar to those which are already in the classroom. This will help the student to feel more a part of the group.

Teachers must also check for the wheelchair access to the bookshelves, storage cubbies, coat rooms and the like to ensure that placement of these furnishings will allow the student to freely utilize these things as much as their disability allows them to. Posters, boards and other visual learning materials displayed around the classroom should be at an appropriate level and angle for the student to utilize as well. Out of the classroom activities must also be considered. If the facility is multi-storied and there is no elevator, will the student(s) be able to access the cafeteria, gym, auditorium, library, etc. If some of these are accessible but not all, when feasible, a school might want to consider having the special activity in the classroom or a different area to allow the wheelchair bound student to participate.

School administrators must also consider the wheelchair bound student when preparing their emergency evacuation plan. About five years ago a school in Maryland had to leave two wheelchair bound students in the stairwell to be rescued by the fire personnel as the students’ classroom was located on the second floor with an elevator which could not be used during an emergency evacuation. The students’ classroom was there do to the proximity to the lunchroom allowing them easy access. The parent’s comment on the situation was “He won’t be late for lunch, but he’ll burn if there’s a fire.”

Providing education for all including wheelchair access to wheelchair bound students is doable.  As we move towards the reality of No Child Left Behind, it is important to consider wheelchair accessibility in our plans to provide for all students in an appropriate inclusive classroom.

2 Responses to Working Towards Wheelchair Accessible Schools

  1. Joe White says:

    I appreciate what this article is saying. The information is important. It is unfortunate that bringing materials to an accessible school or part of the school is considered to be inclusive. I disagree with the term “wheelchair bound” I have been a wheelchair user for 8 years as a result of a spinal cord injury and I have never been bound to my wheelchair. Otherwise, thanks for the article.

    • Buffy Burger says:

      My friend Andy was not “bound” to her wheel chair either. She was as active as her body would allow. I appreciate your comment. Miriam Loeb

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