Most architects and school designers are well aware of the technical requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and consistently design and renovate schools to comply. However, very few are even remotely familiar with other federal laws that significantly affect the education of students with disabilities and the environmental considerations that may be necessary to provide such students with an appropriate education. With the largest U.S. school-construction boom in a generation, planners and designers must broaden their awareness of these laws and foster collaboration and consultation with special education staff to ensure a proper learning environment for all students.

In addition to the ADA, two other federal laws directly affect public school districts that must serve students with disabilities. As the predecessor to the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Unlike the ADA, Section 504 applies only to those programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. Because the majority of public schools indirectly or directly receive some federal funding, they are subject to its mandates. However, Section 504 does not itself fund programs for students with disabilities.

During the mid-1970s, Congress also passed the predecessor law to the current Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The purpose of the IDEA was to open the doors of public education to all students with disabilities and, to serve that end, Congress provides some federal funding to support the mandates of the law.

Both Section 504 and the IDEA require the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students who are disabled as defined by the respective laws. Under Section 504, a student is considered disabled if the student has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as learning, hearing, walking or seeing. In contrast to the one definition of disability under Section 504, the IDEA currently provides for 13 categories of disability that are further defined by each of the individual states. The categories range from learning disabled to emotionally disturbed to other health impaired. In most states, public schools must serve children aged three through 21 pursuant to these laws.

Each student who is identified under either law as disabled and in need of individualized programming or services is entitled to receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Under Section 504, the provision of FAPE is defined as education and services that are designed to meet the individual educational needs of handicapped persons as adequately as the needs of nonhandicapped persons. Under the IDEA, FAPE is defined as an individualized educational program that is reasonably calculated to provide meaningful educational benefit to the student. The least restrictive environment requirement is often referred to as the mainstreaming requirement and certainly has had the effect of including most children with disabilities in the regular education classroom. Moreover, both laws also require that schools provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in nonacademic and extra-curricular activities in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Within this broad legal framework in place, many schools must provide modifications or accommodations to the physical environment to ensure the provision of FAPE to students with disabilities, as well as to prevent discrimination based on disability. Architects and designers must, therefore, be aware of the broad range of disabilities that may exist in any school district, as well as the need for the considerable accommodation that may be necessary. Thus, when designing new schools or renovating older ones, it is no longer sufficient for architects and designers to be complaint with ADA’s technical requirements. Rather, special education staff and administrators should be consulted during the planning stages to ensure that the school is appropriately addressing the environmental needs of students with disabilities.

Such consultation will quickly confirm that schools currently serve vast numbers of children with a wide range of disabilities whose individual needs vary a great deal. For example, a student with a hearing impairment may require acoustical adjustments to the educational setting to receive FAPE. School districts have been asked to install carpeting or acoustical ceiling tile to minimize auditory distractions to hearing impaired students. Where budgets do not allow for the considerable expense that may be involved to provide those design elements, parents of students with hearing impairments have requested such minor modifications as the insertion of tennis balls on the legs of chairs to minimize the noise created by the movement of chairs on a noncarpeted surface. In contrast, schools are beginning to see more children diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivities whose disability may mandate a carpet-free environment. During the planning stage, architects and planners, in consultation with special education staff, should become cognizant of the variety of disabilities that exist and plan accordingly.

Similarly, during the planning stages, the location of one classroom to another should be considered in relation to the needs of children with disabilities. For example, if the primary regular education or special education classroom for a hearing impaired student or student with attention deficit disorder is located near the music classroom or a playground, the auditory distraction may prevent those students from gaining instructional benefit. Many school districts are asked to provide individual students with an auditory trainer system that enhances the auditory input that student receives while, at the same time, minimizes auditory distractions. However, with the advances in technology that exist in this area, school planners should consider whether a surround sound system that accomplishes the same purpose for all children in the classroom might be installed.

School building planners also must consider the special safety needs of students with disabilities. Thus, buildings where students with hearing impairments are educated must be outfitted with flashing emergency signals to ensure the safety of students who may not be able to hear a siren or emergency announcement. In addition, planners should consider the location of special education classrooms for students whose disabilities might make it more difficult for those students to get safely and quickly to a place of safety.

Students diagnosed with autism often have considerable individual needs that may also necessitate special considerations during building design and renovation. Many students with autism are hyper-sensitive to light and sound. As a result, fluorescent lighting that creates a slight buzzing noise may result in extreme behavioral responses. Consultation with special educators at the design stage may eliminate or lessen the responses of such children.

In planning for the needs of special education students, consideration may need to be given to the selection of wall color. With the increase in the numbers of children diagnosed with autism and with emotional disturbances, educators often note that environmental stimuli, such as paint color and wall hangings, can stimulate or minimize behavioral outbursts.

To a greater extent than before, public schools are serving students with considerable behavioral issues that require the use of specially designed time-out rooms or spaces. Cases interpreting the IDEA and Section 504 provide legal guidance regarding the construction of such spaces. These cases should be reviewed by architects and designers during the planning stage.

Obviously, school planners must always bear in mind the needs of children with physical impairments. However, it is not sufficient to limit such considerations to the use of ramps or the width of doorways. Height and placement of desks, tables and water fountains are also factors that must be addressed.

In planning for program accessibility, architects and designers should be aware that the law’s focus is on program, rather than building accessibility, and that a school district can move a classroom to ensure program accessibility. However, certain types of classrooms, such as laboratories, libraries, computer labs and cooking classrooms, cannot be easily moved to ensure accessibility. Thus, the location of such classrooms must be considered at the design stage.

All buildings must have a full range of accessible support facilities that include, but are not limited to, parking, accessible routes, entrances, signage, restrooms, drinking fountains, alarms, doors and cafeterias. In reviewing such support facilities, planners and architects also should ask questions such as whether ramps and walkways can be cleared during inclement weather to ensure continued accessibility to the district’s programs and activities. In addition, planners should consider whether specialized hardware should be used on doors to provide for easier and more independent access to students whose disabilities may preclude the use of traditional hardware.

Special consideration must be given to playground facilities to ensure that playgrounds and playground equipment are accessible to children no matter the nature of the disability. In addition, in choosing playground materials and equipment, consideration should be given to the nature of how the various disabilities affect individual students. One school district reported that a student with autism did not want to use the playground facility because he was hypersensitive to the wood chips that were used under the equipment to enhance safety. Schools districts also are seeing an increase in the number of students who are diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity or latex allergies. In light of this increase, thought must be given to the chemical composition of building materials and the affect of those choices on students with disabilities.

Clearly, designing or renovating school buildings with the needs of students with disabilities in mind is not an easy task. However, it is critically important that special education staff be consulted during the planning and designing phases to make certain that the needs of students with disabilities are addressed.