Public schools have been traditionally designed with little consideration for students, staff, administrators or visitors who have mobility issues. Planners may not consider or take universal design elements seriously, reducing or eliminating accessibility in buildings that community members depend upon for the education of all our children. Disability advocacy groups and our Parent/Teacher organizations should be aware of how many buildings in their school district have built accessibility into their designs.
Some years ago our local single story accessible elementary school was torn down and rebuilt. During public meetings on the new design, one parent mentioned that another school volunteer was a dad who used a wheelchair. It did not make sense for the district to have chosen a design that featured many stairs but only a small elevator, leaving no option for that dad take more than a few students from the classroom to the library or cafeteria, out to the playground or waiting buses.
There were also concerns that any teachers, support staff, or administrators, using wheelchairs, would find the building inaccessible, not to mention students, families, and community members. Aside from accessibility issues and the inconveniences of everyday life, lack of planning for full use of buildings by individuals with mobility challenges puts both adults and children in danger during emergency evacuation of schools. In cases of natural disaster, schools may be designated as temporary shelters for displaced individuals who may already rely on mobility aids or who may have been injured during and event or its aftermath.
A concerned parent reported that an administrator, showing off the plans and model of the building at a summer arts festival, became irate when accessibility issues were brought up at the school district booth. No calm dialog was possible. Disability advocates were unable to open a discussion about modifying the design before the school was being built. One parent was told that the community would have to wait until after the school opened; show proof of inaccessibility; and have a person using a wheelchair file a complaint. At that time the district's position would be that it would be too expensive to modify the building.
Community members were told repeatedly by the district that the proposed design was one of the most popular in the USA, and that the small elevator made the design exempt from the ADA. That school was built as planned. Over the years, other single-story accessible buildings were torn down and replaced by buildings without the universal design elements that benefit everyone. One would think that even if there was no ADA, common sense would dictate that public schools and at least all public buildings must incorporate accessible elements of design.
Browse your local bookstore, public library and online retailer for books about Universal Design principles and accessibility like Barrier-free design, or The Universal Design Handbook
Germany - Wheelchair user designs a 3D printable, portable ramp