High Standards Are Needed When It Comes to Accessibility at Our Schools
It’s been 30 years since we built our house. It was such an exciting time. I remember poring over plans and looking at designs. I remember long conversations with our contractor as he helped us realize our vision for our home. I specifically remember one walk through, after the house finally had a roof, when he asked us where we wanted the light switches. He ended up putting them where we directed him to put them. After just weeks of living in the house, I found myself getting annoyed because the switches for the exterior lights over the garage doors are in a really stupid location. Unfortunately, because we didn’t think it through or consider what life would be like in the finished house, we couldn’t blame the contractor. We had to take responsibility for the location of those switches.
Something similar is happening over on Westerly Parkway at the new State College Area High School only it is a bit more serious than a misplaced light switch.
Perhaps because of this column and my rather vocal opinions on inclusion (and, in the past, the high school renovation), I recently received some interesting emails in which some local residents asked me to write about accessibility on the high school campus. The accompanying pictures definitely made me scratch my head.
Although I am not a reporter, the story is interesting. Sidewalks that don’t have curb cuts. Limited access at some points. Entrance points that, if a person gets too far in, will mean he or she has to double back because the ramp is out of the way.
I reached out to my brother-in-law who uses a wheelchair and who also happens to be a State College Area School District track coach. He is frequently up at the track and moving around in that part of the campus. “Do you see problems with accessibility at the new school?” I asked.
“There are definitely some places that need some work,” he replied
Tom sometimes takes a much more reasoned approach to concerns about inclusion than his more easily agitated sister-in-law.
In an email to SCASD Superintendent Dr. Bob O’Donnell, I asked what he knew about accessibility issues with the $145 million building and renovations on Westerly Parkway. He responded quickly and with candor.
“Beginning this fall, every building in our district, except for the Fairmount Building, will be 100 percent ADA compliant, a significant improvement to our campuses” O’Donnell wrote. “However, we are still striving to make our campuses better for individuals with disabilities. For example, we’ve already finished adding several curb cuts to the high school’s north campus, something not in the original plans, and are now considering similar changes to the south side.
“[SCASD Director of Physical Plant] Ed Poprik and I did walk through some obvious curbing that needs to be changed. The bottom line, we do need to make those improvements so we can ensure every individual with disabilities can move as freely and safely as possible.”
I guess I’m not the only one who didn’t give their contractor the right instructions.
The way the Americans with Disabilities Act works is that the legislation outlines the minimum standard for access. Minimum standard. It uses words and phrases like “function of the facility,” “reasonable” and “feasible.” Many organizations and businesses use those minimum standards to design and develop their building and renovations. The argument is that, by doing the minimum, people will have access and the organization can save money.
But access is more than just getting in the door. It also means providing all who participate the same quality of experience. Walking from one side of campus to the other. Being able to stay with one’s group of friends or with one’s family as they move from facility to activity. Being able to be as independent as possible. Traversing with safety around the campus. Inclusion and what is called “social inclusion” go beyond curb cuts, the pitch of a road and the width of the doors.
A school district – and a community – with a mission of “Inclusion Excellence” should strive for more than the lowest threshold for accessibility requirements.
This accessibility snafu is likely going to add on to the cost of an expensive high school construction project. Despite the added cost, it is important that we make it right. It is also important that our elected officials adopt a resolution giving administration the directive that universal design and universal access in all of our future building, renovations, programs and services will be the standard. We know what it looks like – we just need to do it.
People who are interested in offering feedback or learning more about the accessibility issues at the high school campus can attend a school board facilities and grounds committee meeting at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 14 in classroom B122 of the high school. While I might suggest that mid-morning meeting times may be somewhat exclusive in and of themselves, it is at least an attempt. At that meeting, district officials will be leading attendees on a walk-through of the properties to identify problem areas.
Just about a year ago, we worried that selling Papa John’s pizza in school cafeterias would send a negative message, given the past use of racial slur by the corporation’s former CEO. What messages are we sending to the students, faculty, staff and visitors to the SCASD facilities if they aren’t fully accessible? The goal of an “inclusion excellence” plan should be to set the bar as high as we can and send a very clear message that all are welcome.