For 15 years, schools and universities have been striving to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and make their programs and facilities accessible to people with disabilities. It's not uncommon to see education facilities outfitted with ramps, elevators, special parking spaces, curb cuts, playground equipment and signage — all in an effort to negate the obstacles that prevent people with disabilities from using the facilities with ease.
But for those administrators who are responsible for making sure their campuses are accessible, the effort requires continual vigilance. As a campus changes, potential impediments to those with disabilities can arise.
Expansions and renovations can alter buildings and grounds, and affect accessibility. A school may add new programs or move existing ones to a location that has barriers to mobility, inadequate Braille signage for those with sight impairments, or acoustical conditions that hinder the learning of those with hearing difficulties; those conditions may necessitate facility alterations.
Temporary conditions, such as construction sites, may create unanticipated barriers. New students or staff members may have disabilities that need to be addressed specifically. Updated guidelines or interpretations of the law may force schools to make further alterations.
“It's naive to think that you're not going to have unexpected barriers,” says Sarah Hawthorne, assistant provost for equity standards and compliance at the University of California at Berkeley. “In real life, they occur all the time.”
Schools and universities that have numerous accessibility issues to address can get a clearer view of the upgrades that are needed by going directly to those affected.
“One of the best things to do is to consult the disability community,” says Hawthorne. “Have a student with a disability walk the campus with you. There is practical stuff that can be done quickly.”
For instance, Hawthorne says, people with mobility impairments have often told her how much easier they can enter and exit buildings that have automatic door openers.
In school systems that cannot address all their accessibility needs immediately, officials must determine the most critical situations and address them first.
The ADA does not require that all parts of a facility be accessible, but it does require that every program that a school offers be situated in at least one accessible space.
“The first priority is making sure all our programs are accessible,” says Yonko Rodonov, the ADA coordinator for the San Francisco school district.
To address its numerous accessibility issues comprehensively, the district has put together an ADA Transition Plan that establishes priorities for which facilities will get upgrades and how much of a building will be made accessible.
Each of San Francisco's schools will be placed into one of three categories to indicate the level of accessibility that will exist at the facility:
Category 1 schools and facilities will be made fully accessible for all programs, services and activities at the site. “It is intended that all identified barriers that are not complying with applicable codes be removed at these sites,” the plan states.
Category 2 facilities will be made accessible for programs, services and activities, but “in some cases, some programs would need to be relocated within the facility to achieve program accessibility.”
Category 3 facilities will have accessibility barriers removed as soon as funding is available. “It is intended that these facilities achieve a basic level of accessibility that will allow selective program access,” the plan states.
Forty-five schools (12 high schools, eight middle schools and 25 elementary schools) have been designated Category 1; 47 schools (six high, six middle and 35 elementary) are Category 2; and 26 schools (three high, four middle and 19 elementary) are Category 3.
In pursuing accessibility, the highest priority should be given to the schools where students with disabilities will be attending, says Rodonov. “Focus first where the kids are,” he says.
Rodonov adds that in a large district such as San Francisco, it is important that a program be accessible — not just in one location, but in buildings throughout the city.
“There should be some schools in every area of town that are able to accommodate students with disabilities,” he says.
Ultimately, schools and universities should be striving to make sure all its facilities are accessible, even if the school already is meeting requirements for program accessibility.
“There are parents and grandparents that may have accessibility issues that need accommodations,” says Rodonov.
The steep incline of many streets in San Francisco have made compliance with accessibility guidelines more complicated, he says.
“We have a lot of schools with multiple levels,” he says. “Some of the streets have a grade of 15 to 18 percent.”
Schools that are making upgrades to improve accessibility can complete those alterations without calling attention to a disability or detracting from the aesthetics of a campus.
“The goal is transparent accessibility,” says Deb Michener, a senior associate at Geller DeVellis, a landscape architecture firm in Boston. “It's not always necessary to have big ramps.”
Ramps or elevators are common ways to make a building accessible to wheelchairs. But those modifications may not blend in with the overall design of a facility, and tend to call attention to themselves and the people with disabilities who need them.
Many schools and designers are embracing the concepts of universal design, in which facilities are built to be accessible to all people and accommodate a wide range of preferences and abilities. For landscape designers, that means avoiding stairs and ramps.
“We use grading and earthwork to create sloped walkways,” says Michener.
At Boston College's new 100 St. Thomas More Road residence hall, the firm created an accessible path from the hall to the school's football stadium and a nearby subway station. Moving earth around and regrading a site also enables designers to create more accessible athletic fields, says Michener.
A school's ability to deal with its accessibility issues often is dependent on its finances.
“Schools look to us to find the balance between aesthetics and cost,” says Michener. “Public schools typically have tighter budgets.”
Sometimes, installing a ramp is the most effective solution to an accessibility issue, but schools should try to have it fit in with the overall design.
“If you have to have a ramp, try to respect the architecture,” says Michener.
When people with disabilities and their advocates feel that a school is not making enough progress in achieving accessibility, they may resort to litigation to bring about changes. That's what happened at the University of California at Berkeley, where a hilly terrain and older buildings on campus hampered its efforts to make the campus accessible.
In 1997, a class-action suit was filed against the school; in 1999, the plaintiffs and the university agreed to bring in experts to evaluate campus conditions, and recommend ways to remove barriers and improve access. Earlier this year, a wide-ranging settlement was announced.
Among the improvements called for in the agreement:
All buildings that house student programs, services and activities will have at least one entrance per building that is accessible to students with disabilities.
Restrooms will be renovated so at least one accessible restroom for each gender will be within 200 feet of each building's program areas.
All buildings will be connected to a series of fully accessible pathways leading to and among the facilities.
The university will develop and carry out a lighting plan for primary routes and building connections.
The university will install a new signage system that designates accessible paths.
Campus shuttle buses will be replaced with wheelchair-accessible buses.
The settlement also directed the university to appoint a high-level administrator — Hawthorne — to oversee the efforts to improve accessibility.
“My office can cut through the bureaucratic red tape,” she says. “When there is a problem, I can fast-track it up the administrative ladder.”
Hawthorne says her office has a “quick-fix” account that enables her to authorize repairs without having to wait for the department responsible for the work to allocate funds.
“This way, a person with a disability isn't left hanging while the request works its way through the system,” says Hawthorne.
To help the Berkeley campus address accessibility issues quickly, the university has a mobility access specialist available from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. to respond to complaints and concerns on campus.
Berkeley also has created a campus map on the Internet where students can locate where pertinent accessible features can be found — the gradient of a street, the location of TTY phones for those with hearing disabilities, accessible entrances and curb cuts.
“There's nothing more discouraging than getting up a hill and finding there are no curb cuts,” says Hawthorne.
The mapping system also can show features inside a building, such as where accessible restrooms are situated.
The university also has developed a room assignment system that allows events to be moved at short notice if an accessibility barrier is discovered. Berkeley also has portable ramps that can be deployed quickly to provide accessibility at a location.
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting to work
Addressing a school system's accessibility needs in a comprehensive way can be a daunting assignment.
The San Francisco school district's ADA Transition Plan spells out needed action in more than 20 areas: passenger loading zones, parking, curbs and crosswalks, paths of travel, ramps, stairs, elevators, platform lifts, doors, restrooms, drinking fountains, public telephones, school offices, assembly areas, libraries, labs and workstations, locker rooms, playgrounds and outdoor sports areas, communication, alarm systems, areas of rescue assistance, and general data.
The district will make improvements to provide these features at all of its schools: a loading zone on an accessible route to the main accessible entrance in order to allow private vehicle loading; a primary accessible route that connects the public way, accessible parking, the main accessible entrance, the main office and the public assembly area.
It also will install elevators in most schools and install platform lifts on primary paths where ramps are not feasible. Primary paths that are excessively steep will be regraded. It will install one accessible kindergarten restroom, one set of accessible adult restrooms, and one set of accessible student restrooms, as well as one “high-low” drinking fountain on the main floor.
In the restroom
The federal government last year published updated accessibility guidelines for public restrooms.
Bobrick Washroom Equipment has highlighted several of the changes in an addendum to its Barrier-Free Washroom Planning Guide:
A wheelchair-accessible toilet compartment should have a minimum width of 60 inches, and the distance from the rear wall to the stall door should be at least 56 inches.
Grab bars can have a diameter of as much as 2 inches, and in addition to circles, ovals and rounded rectangles are allowed.
An accessible urinal is required to have an elongated rim of at least 13½ inches.
Mirrors that are not over lavatories must be mounted with the bottom edge of the reflecting surface no more than 35 inches above the finished floor.
The full guidelines are on the Internet at www.access-board.gov/ada-aba.htm.