When the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted in 1992, it created access obligations that schools had never been required to address. How well are schools doing to meet these obligations? To get an insight into this issue, SP&M spoke to a representative of an architectural design firm that deals with a number of different schools, plus spokespersons from two school districts. These are, respectively, Kathy Gips, director of training, Adaptive Environments, Inc., Boston, Mass.; Cerald S. Strader, facilities manager for Eau Claire Area School District, Eau Claire, Wis.; and Beth Pruden, ADA coordinator for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, Charlotte, N.C.

“When the ADA regulations went into effect in 1992, there were two different levels of requirements, one from 1992 for new construction and the other for older buildings already in existence,” says Gips. She explains that while the requirements are more stringent for new construction, they are easier to build into the design than renovating an older building.“Making older buildings accessible, having to service all areas of school activity and finding the funds to do it have resulted in a lot of stress for many school districts.”

Strader reports that Eau Claire has only older buildings to contend with. During the last 20 years, the district had a large building program but has gradually tapered off. A lot of the 22 buildings, two of them administration buildings, were constructed before 1988.“We’re now a declining enrollment district and will be for the next nine to10 years,” Strader says. “So we won’t be building new facilities.”

On the plus side, however, Strader says, “We’re reasonably lucky in that we do have an ADA budget. We’re probably one of very few districts in Wisconsin that does have a budget. I can deal with things as they come up day by day, for example if a teacher needs a ramp. We recently put in an elevator in one building.”

Rest rooms are fairly expensive, says Strader, and he tries to bring one up to regulation each year. He points out that the original guidelines did not address elementary school children and the fact that their size requires a different height for bathrooms and sinks than an adult. “The one we renovated this year was near the gymnasium, the one most used by the public,” says Strader. “So how do you design it so it works for both a first grader and an adult in a wheel chair? You have to compromise.”

Administrators were in a quandry for young children in any context, Gips says, since the original guidelines were just for adults. “In 1998, the ADA Access Board came out with guidelines for elementary schools with guidelines for things like water fountains, counters, desks, toilets and sinks that make more sense.”

Another set of guidelines that address playgrounds came out about 2000, Gips says. “They have been extremely helpful. Schools had to design playgrounds so disabled children could participate, but there were no guidelines.”

Often, it takes more than looking at guidelines. “We were told that to build a ramp to a student playground would cost about $75,000,” says Pruden. “But we decided a much more creative and inexpensive solution was to simply buy a new playground and put it in an accessible location.” The new playground can be used by any class with students with disabilities. The old one can still be used by classes that do not have students with special requirements.

Gips thinks that unless ramps are absolutely necessary, they are a bad idea anyway. “We create access without ramps if at all possible, especially with new construction, because ramps can be dangerous. Here, in the northeast, many architects won’t design ramps unless they have a heat coil.” She explains that the danger comes during inclement weather — water, snow or ice. In addition, a ramp requires handrails, plus level areas every 30 ft. “If you have a slope of five percent or less, you have a walkway rather than a ramp, which is generally safer and less expensive,” Gips says.

Access improvements don’t necessarily mean large expenditures, says Pruden, if you think creatively. She explains that her system has about 200 buildings, some constructed in the 1920s. “About five years ago, we looked at all our buildings and evolved a five-year plan,” she says. The plan has been distributed to all levels of the staff so there is a concerted team effort to meet the challenges. On the other hand, when a specific challenge comes up, a number of people might converge on it together, including the student, parent, administrator, teacher, staff personnel and maybe the architect.

“A big accomplishment, though not a very glamorous one, was measuring the width of the toilet stalls, to make sure every child has access to the bathroom,” says Pruden. “Sometimes the small measures have more impact than the larger ones. Sometimes it might just be a grab iron in a restroom to make life easier. For a paraplegic student, we came up with the solution of a big button to the elevator that he could push independently.”

One solution that was arrived at after a lot of creative trial and error had to do with getting people on stage. “We tried all types of things,” says Pruden, “then came up with a system that involves regular stairs for most people, but when you push a button, the stairs go under the stage and a lift comes out for a wheelchair.”

Another important consideration, Pruden says, is mapping routes to be used by all students, as opposed to separating those with and without disabilities to different routes. Along these same lines, Gips says it’s important to disperse wheel chair seating in an auditorium. “Some administrators, without thinking ahead, have parked off a single wheel chair area, which tends to isolate those students,” says Gips. “All students should be free to sit in the front or back and near their friends.”

Gips says that the law is only setting minimum standards, and there are many more critical design elements that could help students that are not addressed in ADA.

These include things like lighting, indoor air quality and acoustics. These are not that expensive if incorporated into the design but can be unnecessarily expensive if ignored. “I’ve seen classroom acoustics that were so bad that a portable PA system had to be brought in,” Gips says.

Good signage is also important and can save a lot of stress, she adds. Have signs and rails at critical junctures where directions can change. Ceiling color should be light to contrast with the wall that, in turn, contrasts with the doorway to help people with low vision.

“What really needs research is access for the children that have cognitive problems, such as learning disabilities or attention deficit,” Gips says. “There’s not been a whole lot done in this area, but the American Institute for Architects has formed a neuroscience committee, which is trying to look at the relationship of how the brain works and good design. We talk about high-performance schools, but we need to talk about students performing to their best capacity. This goes way beyond ADA.”

Other important issues Gips names are automatic doors that encourage independence and the need to assure access for students in science, home economics and shop labs where there are no specific ADA provisions but where access should be available.

“School districts have made some good strides, but there is a way to go,” says Gips. “Schools are educating our children, who are our future, and schools are also becoming more community-centered, serving adults with disabilities as well.”

Pruden says that for her district, “providing access for people with disabilities takes planning and it takes time, but we have ADA funding set aside for these accommodations, and there hasn’t been any challenge we haven’t been able to work through.”