Accessible education is essential in order to build a more equitable future. Accessibility can mean many different things, from learning support and quiet spaces to the structure of the buildings people learn in. When people talk about accessibility they are often referring to it regarding disability, whether mental or physical, but it benefits us all. The right to education is something the disabled community has had to fight tooth and nail every step of the way for and major barriers still exist today. Able-bodied people are all too capable of walking through life unaware of the day-to-day barriers disabled people face.
There are guidelines in place in the United States with the goal of guaranteeing equal accessibility of buildings. These guidelines are part of the rights laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a piece of legislation with the goal of providing legal protections for disabled people and equal opportunity in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications for people with disabilities. This legislation was put into effect on July 26, 1990, after decades of effort on the part of disabled activists. One vital part of this act’s guarantee of equal opportunity is the standards buildings must meet in order to be considered ADA-compliant and therefore accessible.
The Northwest School is completely ADA compliant, as is required of all buildings dedicated to public use. A physically disabled person should be able to access all floors and rooms of the buildings classes are held in. The Northwest School’s director of facilities and transportation, Damien James, and its Director of Learning Services, Kelly Marshal, both gave me tours of the school and pointed out details people may not notice are actually ADA requirements. The distances between the shelves must be a specific width in order to accommodate wheelchairs. Curbs must have curb cuts. The width of doors and the presence of larger bathrooms are in accordance with ADA requirements. The presence of elevators is part of ADA compliance, as well as a minimum number of doors that can be opened through the press of a button as opposed to pushing or pulling. Even details such as the height of door handles, sinks, paper towels, toilets, and toilet paper are set by the ADA.
However, just because this standard has been met doesn’t mean there aren’t improvements that can be made. When talking with Damien, in addition to going over the ways in which the school is ADA-compliant, we also discussed potential steps it could take in order to become more accessible in the future. A project that Damien is hoping to implement is the creation of a system to assist with wayfinding. Wayfinding is orienting yourself in a physical space and navigating within it. This step would be especially helpful for NWS as finding your way to classes can often be a bit of a hassle here. Between the difficult-to-decode room numbering system, the half floor off the commons, and our many nooks and crannies, knowing the most efficient way to get from point A to point B is far from intuitive. Tools to assist with wayfinding would benefit everyone at NWS, but especially people with disabilities that impact their ability to walk. Another step the school could take is the creation of door signs with braille for both the room number and its name. Directions are usually given in reference to the names of rooms, not their numbers. Most people wouldn’t know the numbers, which are far from intuitive as mentioned earlier, of most NWS rooms if asked. The addition of braille for the names of rooms as well would make sure all students are able to access this information.
One part of the school that is notably less accessible than the rest is the dorms. While the building technically meets ADA standards, people with disabilities that affect their ability to climb stairs are limited in where in the dorms they can go as there are no elevators. There is an ADA-compliant dorm room on the first floor that doesn’t require stairs. Technically a dorm resident can access all necessities while limited to the first floor. Still, this would severely limit the freedom and social engagement of this student as dorm residents spend a substantial amount of time on the second floor and basement.
While it is worthwhile to note these shortcomings, it’s important to acknowledge the constraints that NWS faces when it comes to implementing solutions. The installation and maintenance of elevators is very pricey. Between materials, labor, permits, and often necessary remodeling of the building to accommodate for the elevator, and more, the average cost of elevator installation is well above $15,000 according to earlyexperts.net. The dorms may face additional challenges in the installation of elevators due to the building’s unique triangular shape. While we should keep these barriers in mind, we must still strive to take steps to create spaces everyone is capable of accessing.
If you are able-bodied and reading this, I urge you to keep an eye out for accessible and inaccessible architecture and layout in your day-to-day life. Disabilities that affect mobility are the most common form. According to the CDC, these disabilities affect at least 1 in 7 Americans. This form of disability becomes more common with age, affecting at least 2 in 5 adults aged 65 or older. While the Americans with Disabilities Act was a huge step towards equality, we aren’t nearly done. Plenty of buildings get away with not complying with ADA requirements, and many more find ways to cut corners. Disabled people unequivocally deserve to live with dignity and equal opportunity.