GAO report: Two-thirds of nation’s schools lag on accessibility

Dive Brief:

  • According to a report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, two-thirds of school buildings don’t provide adequate access for students and staff with disabilities and often have physical barriers instead, such as steep or no ramps and doorknobs that require twisting wrists.
  • The most common areas in which the federal agency observed accessibility barriers included restrooms, interior doors and classrooms.
  • While about 70% of districts had large renovations, small upgrades or accessibility evaluations planned in the next three years, many cited lack of adequate funding as a challenge. 

Dive Insight:

The report also found districts identified other projects that kept buildings functioning as priorities, such as roofing and heating. Additionally, it suggested that in the rush to make schools safe and secure in an era of gun violence, schools sacrifice accessibility improvements and often inadvertently make schools unsafe and insecure for students with disabilities. 

The report was released on the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a 1990 civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in schools, workplaces and other areas of public life.

Despite the law and the report’s findings that help is needed to fulfill its requirements, districts in the report cited a lack of federal-level guidance, technical assistance and outreach as obstacles to compliance. For example, the Department of Justice, which has the authority to interpret ADA, has done so for other public spaces, such as stadiums, but not for schools. Not surprisingly, many school districts cited difficulty and confusion in understanding the law’s technical language. 

Recent guidance on school safety posted by the Department of Education addresses steps schools can take to curb gun violence, but does not include specific information on how to improve accessibility for students with disabilities or how to meet ADA’s requirements in the school safety context. 

The GAO report falls in line with a 2015 investigation by the Justice Department that found 83% of New York City’s public elementary schools were not fully accessible, and six of the system’s school districts, which served over 50,000 students at the time, did not have a single school considered fully accessible. 

Poor infrastructure and lack of funding to make necessary public school health, safety and design upgrades have gained additional spotlight in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Recent federal legislative proposals include $100 billion in emergency education funding to help schools cover costs to reopen safely, while the Moving Forward Act would provide $130 billion to repair and upgrade school facilities that pose risks to the health and safety of students and staff. 

However, while both pieces of legislation made it through the House of Representatives, they were stalled in the Senate, where Republicans are expected to introduce a stimulus bill this week that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has suggested could include $105 billion for schools

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