Moving Beyond the ADA

I hear the comment fairly frequently in working with schools, pre-K centers and early childhood programs; “We don’t serve children with special needs so why do we need to make our building accessible?” To all those who may ask this legitimate question, I provide the following response. The ADA (American with Disabilities Act) of 1990 is civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination of a person or a child with a disability. Besides, it is relatively easy to include everyone in facility design if you follow universal design principles that even exceed the ADA requirements.

Titles I and II of the ADA require that newly constructed and renovated state and local governmental buildings, places of public accommodation, and commercial facilities be readily accessible and usable to individuals with disabilities. While most facility planners, architects, school officials, educators, and designers are well aware of this rule, many are unaware that in 1993 the Department of Justice added a special occupancy to the ADA called “Children’s Facilities.” The proposed rule modified ADA requirements for application to facilities, or portions of facilities, constructed primarily for use by children ages two through 12. Schools and early education centers that serve primarily children of this age range now have a better option to get the anthropometrics (sizing) of the building correct. If you have ever seen a small child use an adult wheel chair accessible toilet, you will get the picture as to why the adult ADA regulations don’t work well in designing buildings for children’s use.

Although the Children’s Facilities Section of the ADA addresses reach ranges, protruding objects, handrails sizes, drinking fountain heights, toilet stalls, toilet seats, and fixed or built-in seating, when doing a building for children, designers will need to look beyond the ADA to the principle of universal design. Universal design looks at how each child can participate or be included by the design regardless of their abilities. This article will look at how we used both types of the ADA rules and universal design principles to help design a 33,000-sq.-ft. building for children with disabilities in Blue Springs School District, Blue Springs, MO.

Designing a building for children is complex, but designing a building for children with disabilities from ages three to 21 is even more challenging. All children come in different sizes and with unique needs, but children with disabilities have additional specialized needs. Just the fact that there is no standard size for a child’s wheelchair and adaptive equipment demonstrates just a beginning understanding of how different sizes and functions of adaptive equipment can affect the design of classrooms, therapy rooms, offices, and building lay-out. Each child’s medical status or type of disability requires the use of a variety of adaptive equipment that is unique to that child. Some children have several pieces of adaptive equipment that they use daily. In addition, children with disabilities often do not follow typical growth patterns so attention has to be given to using a variety of projected heights and reach range charts so that all equipment works for everyone. Children should have a personalized space in the classroom for their adaptive equipment and personal belongings. In response to this need, we designed custom lockers in each classroom.

My role on the design team was to help the designers see the complexity of the job through engaging the end users in an extensive interview and observation process. My interviews included teachers, aides, speech/language therapists, principal, administrative staff, bus drivers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, a vision specialist, an information/technology specialist, a social worker, and of course, the students.

I spent hours in the early childhood classrooms, special education classrooms, and therapy rooms observing first hand how each child functioned in that setting, and noting what could be done in the new environment to better support both the student’s needs and the teacher’s or therapists’ needs. This information was then translated back into an architectural program that included the following unique features:

•    Twelve Early Childhood Classrooms with Shared Bathrooms
•    Four Multiple Handicapped Classrooms (One Medically Fragile) with Shared Bathrooms
•    Vocational Training Room
•    Independent Living Model Kitchen
•    Multipurpose Room
•    Warming Kitchen
•    Twelve Speech/Language Therapy Rooms
•    Health Clinic
•    Vision Therapy Room
•    Play Therapy Room
•    Occupational/Physical Therapy Room

In using the concept of designing for all children, we created the above spaces that can be used by all children and are free from physical and social barriers. The following key elements of designing for all children can be used by facility planners, educators, and designers to create environments that are inviting and functional to every child.

Equitable Use
The intent for children with disabilities is to provide for equal and equitable access. Equal access does not mean segregating and stigmatizing any user, able-bodied or disabled. Designing for equitable use means creating a design that is functional to a wide variety of users and one that allows for socialization between all children.

The photo below is an example of how we created restrooms for the early childhood classrooms that meet the needs of both children with and without disabilities.

Bathrooms are an integral part of the early childhood environment, so we made ours usable to children with wheelchairs by using a higher sink and usable to children without chairs by using a lower sink. Notice that the sinks are side by side, which promotes equitable use and interaction. The bathrooms also included diaper-changing tables with stairs for those children who needed restroom assistance and were not toilet trained. Not shown on the photo are the two child-size toilets with child-size grab bars on the other end of the room. In following the children’s ADA, we were able to use smaller grab bars in restrooms where needed.

Flexibility and Independence
For any age child, the environment should foster independence. A developmental task of childhood is to move from total dependence on adults to a more mature, and if possible, independent stage. In designing the outdoor environment, we created an environment that could be used by children with a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Extensive interviews with the teachers and therapists revealed that our outdoor space needed to be adapted for children using walkers, adaptive equipment, and wheelchairs. Extra care was taken to select colors in the surfacing and on the climbing structure that could be used for visual clues for children with limited vision. Both a ramp and an accessible stairway means that children using chairs, walkers, and those with limited mobility can be easily facilitated in using the climber. The wide accessible bike path allows for wheel chairs to pass, and curbs are both a visual and spatial reminder for children. Note how the building has been broken down into small, homelike pods so the facility is more welcoming and less institutional in feel.

Includes Safety
Creating environments for all children must include adherence to a variety of mandatory and voluntary safety guidelines not only for students, but for staff as well. Bathrooms for the physically disabled children included Hoyer lifts and changing tables with self-adjusting heights and safety rails. A window from the bathroom into the classroom allowed for teachers to see all students at all times, if necessary, for safety reasons.

The design must support active experimentation and risk-taking without being unsafe for children. It must also support the role of the staff in assisting in the learning environment. Through interviews with teachers and therapists and during observation, it was noted that children often times had specialized behavior needs and could benefit from an area of retreat. Small alcoves were created so that children could retreat with a staff person to a swing for a self-soothing activity. The alcoves included acoustic panels to keep noise down and padded carpet for safety reasons.

A Team Effort — Post Occupancy Comments
The process of envisioning and designing environments that support competence, independence, exploration, and inclusion is far more complex than following a list of suggested guidelines. The product can be only as good as the process that creates it and the expertise of the design participants. Designing for all children requires a multi-disciplinary, cross-functional design team from the beginning to end. The design team needs to be structured and sensitive to staff, parental, and community input.

Part of the joy of creating high quality environments for students with special needs includes hearing from the end-users what they like best about the environment. The following comments are a testament that by working together and collaborating with others, we can create the best space for students with a variety of needs.

The early childhood teachers have reported that the classrooms are calmer and children really have fewer incidents of inappropriate behavior. Finishes, carpeting, paints, and adhesives were carefully chosen so that chemical off gassing did not occur, and teachers report that the neutral colors of the classrooms has helped calm children. All spaces used by children, including hallways and therapy rooms, followed recommended classroom acoustic guidelines. Teachers, therapists, and children have commented on how quiet the building is.

In summary, as much as we are all different, we are alike. Designing for all children finds a way to support, celebrate, and encourage each child’s abilities, similarities, and uniqueness.

Vicki L. Stoecklin is the Education and Child Development director with White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, MO firm, which specializes in design and consulting for schools, early childhood facilities, and outdoor environments. Vicki has a Master’s degree in Education and is adjunct faculty at National Louis University. She has thirty-three years experience studying and working with children, including children with disabilities. She can be reached at voice: 816/931-1040, Ext. 102 or Additional information, articles, newsletters, and resources can be found at