Many changes have taken place over the last 40 years in the curriculum, teaching methodology, and design of school buildings to accommodate persons with disabilities. In the past, special-needs students were kept separate from the rest of the student body; however, today's school design has helped integrate these students into regular classrooms.

Depending upon the type of school (elementary or secondary) and the size of enrollment, one or two classrooms used to serve special-education needs. Sometimes existing buildings had adequate classrooms, but more often, the special-education classrooms were located in a leftover space, or a converted storage room.

As the legal requirements for educating students with disabilities began changing during the 1970s and into the 1980s, educational planners witnessed an expanding curriculum in the field of special education, which ultimately resulted in specialized classrooms created for students with disabilities.

User-friendly design

Two different attitudes seem to prevail regarding the necessity of making modifications to a regular classroom. One requires permanent changes by remodeling the classroom, which can be expensive for one student for one year. The other attitude is to adapt as best as possible to the existing classroom without expensive remodeling.

Regardless, converting an existing school into a user-friendly building for all students, staff and community presents one of the most unique challenges for a school district. Many people do not understand the difficulties encountered in remodeling for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or for the curriculum, and program enhancements and entitlements that have been added and mandated by state and federal governments. Some of the changes are mandated by law to serve the person with disabilities, some are desirable for educational program enhancements, and some are for making the building user-friendly for all.

Designing a user-friendly school building for students with disabilities, and designing one for those without disabilities, really should be one and the same. Conceptually, there should be no visible difference if the design is developed in a sensitive and sensible manner. Aesthetically, the building's exteriors and interiors should not create the appearance of a school building designed for specific types of users.

It is important to remember all of the various degrees of disabilities, whether physical or mental impairments, including visual and auditory disabilities. The concepts of universal design start with simple modifications to lever-type hardware, switches and controls; drinking fountains at the appropriate height; and widening doorways. Aesthetics, cost, safety, gender and cultural appropriateness also must be considered.

Although schools are attempting to mainstream as much as possible, it is still necessary to design several specialized classrooms of varying sizes to accommodate the unique needs of the student with disabilities for some of the school day. It is easier to accommodate the student with disabilities in a new building design than in an existing building. The existing school presents many obstacles, including small classrooms, changes in floor elevation, stairs, narrow halls, inadequate toilet facilities, poor ventilation, minimal electrical outlets and substandard lighting.

One general philosophy is that special-needs students need a home base from which to start the day before mainstreaming into the regular classroom. This room also can serve as the special-education teacher's office. Associated with this special-education classroom should be the handicapped toilet, wash basin, shower (in case bathing is necessary), and a small space with a residential washer and dryer for clothing.