A generation ago, a school building must have seemed like an impregnable fortress to someone in a wheelchair.
If a person with disabilities were able somehow to get his wheelchair up the curb to the sidewalk, he would probably be confronted with stairs leading up to the entrance. Even if there were no stairs to block his path, the chances were good that he couldn't open the doors without assistance or get his chair through the narrow doorway.
Once inside, he probably would have difficulty getting to classrooms or facilities on other floors. He would confront water fountains too high for him to get a drink and restroom facilities that presented major obstacles - faucets out of reach, handles he couldn't turn, stalls too narrow. In countless ways, however unintentional, schools were sending people with disabilities an underlying message: You're not welcome here.
At the dawn of a new century, schools and universities, like the rest of society, have come a long way in how they view people with disabilities. Instead of refusing to accommodate students or shunting them off to a separate and often inadequate facility, education institutions have grown comfortable with the idea of bringing students with disabilities into the mainstream of education.
A major factor in bringing about that change of attitude is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Enacted in 1990, it requires public institutions to offer services to people with disabilities if they are available to people without disabilities, and mandates that public accommodations must be accessible to people with disabilities.
Together with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the ADA has heightened educators' awareness of the needs of people with disabilities and has prompted significant progress in reshaping thinking and removing barriers.
That's not to say that issues of accessibility have been settled in every school district and university. Advocates of rights for people with disabilities say that many schools need to do a better job of recognizing and correcting situations that create barriers to full accessibility. And many of the changes that the ADA requires should have been addressed by schools under provisions of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which mandated that institutions receiving federal funding be made accessible to people with disabilities.
But in the 10 years it has been on the books, the ADA has made a difference.
"We've made an incredible amount of progress," says Carol DeSouza, executive director of the Association on Higher Education and Disability. "But we have a long way to go."
SHOW ME THE MONEY The ADA, like many regulations that the federal government imposes on state and local entities, does not include any federal funding to help pay for the changes the law requires.
"It would take millions to do everything," says William S. Franzen, director of facilities services for the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colo.
Typical equipment upgrades to provide accessibility include ramps, elevators, wider doorways, automatic doors, levered door handles, lower drinking fountains, signs with Braille and upgraded bathroom fixtures.
As schools have had more success passing referendums for construction projects, more money is available to build accessible, new facilities, or bring older facilities into compliance.
In Wichita, Kan., the approval earlier this year of a $285 million bond issue will help the school district make significant improvements to its buildings, says Evies Cranford, the district's parental liaison and ADA coordinator.
But even before the bond issue, the district had made most of its facilities accessible. The district created a transition plan several years ago to address its accessibility issues. As new needs emerged and older facilities were closed, the plan changed.
The plan called for an elevator in one school, but over time the cost of installation quadrupled, so the school instead relied on a service elevator already in the school. With the bond issue, the school will receive renovations to provide the needed accessibility.
"We're in good shape," says Cranford. "Our alterations are about 95 percent complete."
Often, schools cannot anticipate every situation and must deal with accessibility on a case-by-case basis. As the ADA coordinator, Cranford receives inquiries from students and parents seeking to have their accessibility needs addressed.
"We investigate the matter and make accommodations, or help them understand why the law does not apply," says Cranford.
UNDUE HARDSHIP Some involved in school facilities would like ADA regulations to be defined more precisely, but Alan Storm, director of student services in the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Ariz., says the vagueness of the law gives school districts needed flexibility.
The law requires a school or university to remove barriers unless it can show that the accommodation would impose an "undue hardship" on the operation of its program.
"If a change is cost prohibitive, schools aren't required to do it," says Storm, "but there is no definition of what that is. I think the ambiguity is good."
Without that ambiguity, a school could be forced to carry out alterations it couldn't afford. But the flexibility of the law allows an institution to try to find less costly compromises that students and parents can accept.
In one Sunnyside case, a student in a wheelchair was set to attend a school that was composed mostly of portable classrooms. The district could have built a ramp to accommodate the student, but to have the proper slope it would have been 75 feet long and cost $50,000.
"We consulted with the parents and they agreed to have her transported to another school," says Storm.
In a similar situation in the Poudre district, the expense of a project helped persuade parents to agree to a less costly option.
The parents of a student who was paraplegic wanted their daughter to attend the same school they had attended, but the second floor was not accessible. The district was reluctant to install an elevator, which would have cost $300,000, because the district was planning to replace the building soon.
"Eventually, the parents agreed to allow some programs to be moved to the first floor, which is accessible," says Franzen. "The cost of the elevator helped them make their compromise."
IT'S THE LAW As a staff attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, a not-for-profit organization based in Oakland, Calif., Rhoda Benedetti helps people with disabilities exercise their rights to have accessible public accommodations. From that perspective, Benedetti sees numerous examples of schools and universities not living up to the provisions of the ADA.
"As a general matter, what we've ascertained is that schools are quite ignorant of their obligations under ADA," says Benedetti. "In some places, there is an old-fashioned attitude that the district knows best. It's out-of-date thinking. Many people resist change."
In some cases, schools have not sorted out the differences between ADA and other laws governing students with disabilities. IDEA requires schools to create an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for a special education student, but that doesn't necessarily address all the access issues the student may encounter.
"Schools think that once they have addressed IDEA issues in an IEP, they don't have to deal with any ADA questions," says Benedetti. "Both laws apply."
Many districts, she says, still exclude students with disabilities from certain programs, services and extracurricular activities. Some have not abided by the provision in the law to assess their policies regarding people with disabilities and to create a transition plan to remove barriers.
"There are wheelchair users who have never been to the cafeteria, never been to an assembly, never been to the library," says Benedetti. "They don't get to go to homecoming rallies. They have to eat lunch in their classrooms."
To force the Mount Diablo School District in Contra Costa County, Calif., to make its buildings and programs accessible, Disability Rights Advocates sued the school system in federal court.
The suit alleged that Mount Diablo often bused students with disabilities away from their neighborhood schools and isolated them in portable classrooms at the rear of a campus.
Earlier this year, the district settled the case and agreed to establish new policies to integrate children with disabilities into Mount Diablo's academic and extracurricular programs.
Mount Diablo agreed to remove architectural access barriers at all 55 of its school sites, and by September 2002, provide "minimum accessibility." That includes accessible parking spaces; curb ramps from the parking area to the main entry path; accessible paths of entry to all common areas; elimination of safety hazards along paths; at least one accessible doorway to all common areas; one accessible restroom per sex; one accessible drinking fountain; and one accessible play structure.
A HIGHER CALLING Advocates for people with disabilities say that, generally, colleges and universities have addressed their accessibility needs better than K-12 schools.
"I have few examples where universities have not figured out architectural accessibility," says DeSouza.
Benedetti agrees that universities are ahead of K-12 schools on accessibility, but says some problems are prevalent on campuses.
"Parking is always an issue on campus," she says. "On a lot of campuses, there are not enough handicapped spaces, and they often aren't close enough to the building. Public telephones are too high."
Some campuses lack signs to help people with disabilities find their way, or maps to show students accessible routes around campus.
"Students often have to learn accessible paths the hard way - by figuring it out themselves," says Benedetti.
Campuses may have established accessible paths, but if a construction project intervenes, the schools need to figure out an alternative path in the interim.
BARRIERS IN THE MIND "The hardest thing is getting school districts and their lawyers to realize that the ADA applies to them and what it means," says Benedetti. "The attitudinal barriers are many times worse than the architectural barriers. They might put a ramp to the stage of the theater, but their policy doesn't allow students with disabilities to audition for a play."
For schools that have not fully addressed the accessibility of their facilities and are hoping that they can avoid disputes, Benedetti says they can run, but they can't hide.
"If accessibility has not yet been an issue in your district, you're lucky - it will be," says Benedetti. "The sooner you get to it, the better."
Although the ADA is now 10 years old, schools are still learning how to meet the needs of people with disabilities while watching their budgets and managing all the other facilities issues in their districts.
"There are a lot of untested waters," says Poudres' Franzen. "You learn as you go and take baby steps. You have to be creative."
Sidebar: District cited for ADA violations
The Orleans School Board in New Orleans has agreed to pay $30,000 and $50,000 to two teachers who contended the district violated their ADA rights.
The U.S. Justice Department found that the district refused to provide reasonable accommodations to the teachers, who have HIV. The teachers had requested air-conditioned classrooms. The district also agreed to reinstate the employees to their teaching positions for 2000-01.
As part of the settlement, the district agreed to adopt a systemwide policy to address the needs of people with disabilities and to provide annual training to employees responsible for dealing with requests for accommodations in connection with the ADA.
SIDEBAR: Architects want more clarity
One of the essential elements in ADA compliance at schools and universities is having architects who include accessibility in their designs. But to do that effectively, an architect has to understand what the demands of the law are.
That's why the American Institute of Architects (AIA), with 66,500 members, has urged federal officials to establish clearer guidelines for the ADA.
In a statement this summer to the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the AIA encouraged the Department of Justice, which enforces the ADA, to set up an administrative process that will allow for determination of a project's ADA compliance in the design phase.
"The application of the ADA lacks clear and specific requirements on how to design structures that comply with the law," the AIA says. "If architects know the rules up front, they will know with certainty and clarity how to design buildings that are acceptable to the Department of Justice with regard to the ADA."
The AIA stresses that it was involved with developing the ADA and is a strong supporter of providing accessible accommodations. Ultimately, the group hopes that ADA regulations can become universally accepted and legally binding building codes.
ADA regulations are similar to a building code, but unlike most building codes, no inspectors or code officials review building plans for ADA compliance before construction begins.
"The only way to learn that a building is not in compliance with ADA guidelines is after the fact, when a complaint (and often a lawsuit) is filed," the AIA says.