Access for All

Schools have come a long way since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. All components that make up a school — from interior classrooms and hallways to exterior playgrounds and entrances — are now built with universal access as a fundamental component of the overall design process, making it easier for all children to learn, play, and interact in the same spaces. But since many, many schools were built before accessibility was top of mind, adapting existing spaces to comply can be tricky. And new schools aren’t immune — the design process takes both meticulous planning and a keen eye on the bigger picture to be sure the facility is inclusive.

That process, whether for building a new school or retrofitting an existing one, does pose a few significant challenges to consider:

Space. Space is undoubtedly a cherished commodity when it comes to designing a school to be more accessible. As it is, schools have many different types of spaces with different characteristics, such as low-ceiling classrooms, high-ceiling gymnasiums, crowded hallways, and cluttered classrooms. When you put these spaces next to each other, level changes, doorways, and other features can make the flow from one space to the next less than accommodating. A seemingly “easy” solution to the level-change issue is to replace those few stairs between levels with a ramp, which many schools have accomplished over the last decade. But, again, you need to have the space available to install the ramp, and depending on its slope, you may need to add handrails, curbing, landings, and other features that take up even more room. Ramps should, in fact, be a last resort rather than your go-to solution. A better alternative, if you have the space, is to create a sloped walkway that blends into the surroundings, providing a shared path that everyone can use.

For larger floor-level changes, elevators are often the answer. Of course, adding an elevator can’t be the solution for every level or grade change throughout a school. In those cases, schools might need to get creative and look for potential space in places like adjacent hallways or locker rooms, or even by rearranging the layout of a whole floor.

Entrances. In many older schools, not only do students walk up a set of stairs to get to the front door, they must then walk up a stair or two after going through a vestibule-type space. These entryways are especially challenging for schools looking to be ADA compliant, as space is always at a premium. They are also the focal point or gateway to the school, making the aesthetic of the entry very important. If there is enough space, time, or budget to alter the level of the entrance or build a sloped walk or ramp, that is, in most cases, the best solution. But when circumstances don’t allow those options, schools may have to simply create another entrance elsewhere on the site that is closer to grade level. This may require reorganizing the vehicular and exterior pedestrian circulation systems as well to be sure the handicapped parking spaces, drop-offs, and accessible routes still comply with accessibility requirements and guidelines.

Special Areas. Laboratories, bathrooms, playgrounds, and other specialty areas of a school pose their own accessibility challenges. Bathrooms, for example, must have a certain number of ADA-compliant sinks and toilets. In new schools, it’s not a problem. But older schools often have fewer fixtures than modern codes dictate, meaning you can’t remove any existing fixtures to make room for ADA-compliant versions. And so, once again, you’re faced with the space issue.

Science labs also require special equipment. ADA requires that science labs include accessible tables and sinks as well as at least one ADA-compliant sink along the room’s perimeter. These sinks must be low enough for students to get their hands into them but high enough to provide clearance underneath, which often leaves a fairly shallow sink basin and very little space for plumbing. In these situations, partnering with a good plumber and contracting team is critical — they should understand the parameters of the situation and coordinate with the design team quite clearly about the facility’s goals and details. Making it all fit can be difficult, but with clear communication and ingenuity, many schools are getting it done.

Playgrounds pose a number of additional challenges, especially access to the site itself and to the playground equipment as well as ensuring that equipment meets the new guidelines for accessible play areas. For new schools, proper access to playgrounds shouldn’t be difficult to achieve as long as it is a fundamental component of the design plan from the very beginning. On large lots with athletic fields and plenty of space, long walkways can be sloped gradually enough to avoid needing handrails. For existing playgrounds, much of the accessibility dilemma can be solved through the materials used on site. Rubber tile systems or Fibar, an engineered wood fiber, are both stable foundation materials that also meet criteria for withstanding falls. Most play equipment manufacturers are knowledgeable about current ADA requirements; partnering with these sorts of companies and relying on their respective expertise will help ensure that your play area conforms to the most recent guidelines.

The Site’s Slope. If you’re considering several sites for a new school, keep slope in mind. An especially sloped site usually entails multiple entrances, all at different grades — a main entrance from the street onto the school’s second floor and a back entrance onto the first floor, for instance — which can make access an issue. And while a school could argue that a student can enter the building on one level, use an interior elevator, and come out on another level, that isn’t always enough. The state of Massachusetts, for example, doesn’t recognize the through-the-school path as an accessible route since not all of the school’s doors may be unlocked at any given time. In situations like these, ramps or sloped walkways from one side of the school to the other are often the best solution.

Cohesion. While lack of space is the biggest challenge to accessibility changes, the coherence of a school and its accessible features can also be difficult. When ramps, chair lifts, and other special accommodations are simply tacked on to an existing school, those features tend to stick out and further set apart those students using them. With proper planning, however, schools can work accessible features into the overall look and feel of the school. For instance, a ramp leading up to an outside entrance can cut behind benches and planters, camouflaging the handrails so that passers-by don’t even realize it’s there. Or, in an auditorium, you might be able to conceal a chair lift next to the stage by surrounding it with sets of stairs. It all comes back to planning — the site layout and materials used can go a long way to helping the entire space work together by integrating accessibility features rather than simply camouflaging them.

So how can a school manage balancing these challenges with the need and responsibility to provide facilities for all students? Here are a few tips.

  1. Seize opportunities. The best way to approach any accessibility challenge is to consider it an opportunity rather than a burden. In other words, ask yourself, “How can we best accommodate all students?” rather than, “How can we fit in the requirements?”
  2. Plan, plan, plan. Accessibility should be a fundamental program element for any new or renovated school project right from the beginning. By keeping accessibility a priority, you can be sure all of the elements will work together in one cohesive, comprehensive design.
  3. Focus on routes. Whether it’s a new school or an existing one, always keep the routes from space to space front and center in the design process. Making all routes to, from, and within the school as accessible as possible is the goal, and your design decisions should follow from there.
  4. Partner well. With good site designers, architects, engineers, equipment vendors, and other partners on your team, it will be much easier to find solutions for reaching your accessibility goals. Their specific expertise will help everyone work through the possible outcomes of design alternatives and choose the most successful plan. You will also want to keep your designers significantly involved throughout construction to be sure the project is in keeping with the design and will indeed comply with ADA requirements.
  5. Prioritize. In most cases, a school will not be able to simultaneously make every change needed to be fully ADA-compliant. Instead, study which changes are feasible and will make the biggest difference and prioritize accordingly. You can then focus your next round of updates on the remaining changes.

Even with nearly 20 years of accessibility planning to draw from, there are still no simple solutions for schools looking to update their facilities to meet ADA requirements. Available space and the cost of improvements will continue to be an issue, especially for older schools in urban areas, which need a lot of work but have very little space (and, usually, money). But beginning the planning process early with an experienced team of designers and contractors can make all the difference in finding creative, practical solutions for accommodating everyone. With the support of such a team, schools can truly turn the perceived hurdles of improving accessibility into opportunities for all students — and staff, for that matter — to achieve their full potential.

Bob Corning is a principal in Stantec’s Boston, MA, office, and Anne Marie Edden, associate, and Shirin Bhamra, senior architect, are based in Stantec’s New York City office. All three have designed accessibility projects for dozens of schools throughout the Northeast.