Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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More than two-fifths of all D.C. public schools have had at least one infrastructure issue for people with disabilities in recent months—though officials are working to fix the problems—a public-records request obtained by City Paper shows.

Chris Miller, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 6, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the D.C. Department of General Services at the end of May. He sought to discover gaps in the District’s accommodations for people with disabilities, focusing on schools partially because those buildings often serve as polling locations for elections. DGS, which manages D.C.-owned buildings, responded to his request for records related to “a determination of non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act” at DCPS sites last month. Signed into law in 1990, the ADA is designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, and to guarantee public entities provide them with “reasonable accommodations.”

The list DGS sent Miller shows that 55 of DCPS’ more than 110 schools have had some sort of accessibility issue in the past few years, or what the document (“ADA Update February 2016”) calls “challenges.” Those issues include the lack of an elevator or lift, sinks raised too high, and there not being “access to all floors.” Five of the facilities were recorded as having no challenge (these were recently modernized), while three were left blank (these were either closed, updated, or under renovations). Miller, who has a disabled left hand, says the results show accessibility remains an “ongoing concern.”

“Even though DCPS [and] DGS can remain in compliance with Title II of the ADA by ensuring that there is still program accessibility… that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a moral obligation to ensure that problems are remediated as soon as possible,” Miller says in a statement, referring to a way around violations. “With J.O. Wilson [at 660 K St. NE], for example, the report only lists the lack of an elevator. However, the front door of the school is not wheelchair accessible due to steps lacking a ramp, as is the case with the gymnasium (which is where voting based at the J.O. Wilson precinct [83] occurs).”

School districts can comply with the ADA by bringing books to students who cannot walk up steps to a second-floor library, say, and DCPS notes it’s managed such issues on a “case-by-case basis.” Administrators have followed the ADA at schools that haven’t gotten renovations yet by relocating classrooms, building ramps, and redesigning spaces, the system explains.

“D.C. Public Schools is working closely with the Department of General Services to make accessibility improvements on all of our school campuses,” DCPS says in a statement. “Many of our buildings are in need of modernizations, and we are working to modernize them through the Mayor’s Capital Improvements Plan. This is something that all schools in the District struggle with, whether traditional public schools or others.” (Public charter schools are also required to comply with the act.)

Earlier this year, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced an additional $220 million for DCPS renovations to be completed by the first half of the next decade. Shortly thereafter, the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education reworked the approach through which public schools are scheduled for modernizations such that they’re based more on communities’ needs than “politics” (neighborhood and special interests). More than 15 percent of DCPS’ 49,000 total students live with some kind of disability.

A DCPS spokesperson points to recently modernized Turner Elementary School, in Ward 8, and River Terrace Education Campus, in Ward 7, as “shining examples” of inclusivity. At Turner, teachers reengineered a classroom and “medical suite” to allow students with disabilities to move around easily and access the restroom. River Terrace opened in Fall 2015, serving populations from two previous schools, and has wide hallways, a wheelchair-accessible pool, and a garden/greenhouse—among other features.

DGS’ FOIA response includes a column describing action items for schools that had outstanding access problems (though a fair number of them are as vague as “DCPS will work with DGS to plan accessibility improvements across the District”). Maury Elementary School in Ward 6, for instance, was the subject of a feasibility study in January to improve the connection between its east and west wings. Meanwhile, Ward 8’s Orr Elementary “will be demolished to make way for a new building.”

Michael Gamel-McCormick, associate executive director for research and policy at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, says the District seems to have a plan in place to fix known accessibility issues, based on the FOIA results. 

“It’s a little more complex than thinking you have 50-plus schools that have these types of barriers,” Gamel-McCormick explains. “No access to a cafeteria or a gym—if a school has only one—is clearly a concern. But the lack of an elevator is not necessarily a concern if all of the programming and all of the services are available on the ground level.” A system with as many old buildings as the District is more likely than not to have accessibility problems, he adds, but not always a “plan.”

“The fact that they asked whether ‘all portions’ of a school building were accessible: I see that as a positive thing,” he says.

Approximately 12 percent of U.S. public school students have disabilities. You can see the results of the FOIA request here.