A Smooth Ride

Lifts, restraints and movable seating help schools provide safe transportation to students with special needs.

A generation or more ago, children with disabilities often did not attend public school, and if they did, were often placed in buildings or classrooms isolated from the general student population.

Spurred by legal mandates and society's growing awareness and acceptance of those with special needs, schools in the last several years have made great strides toward inclusiveness. In 1996, more than 45 percent of students with disabilities were in regular classrooms, compared with 25 percent in 1986.

School buses are a key factor in this trend. Districts would not be able to bring these students into the mainstream without a way to transport them safely and comfortably from home to school and back. In some cases, students with special needs can ride a standard school bus with no modifications. But often, districts must provide special equipment to accommodate such students.

That means vehicles with the floor space to accommodate and securely restrain wheelchairs. They need electronic lifts to hoist students and their equipment into the vehicle. Some students need safety vests or other restraints to protect themselves or other students. For students considered medically fragile, a district might need an air-conditioned vehicle, a personal aide or some form of specialized transportation to ensure that they get to and from school safely.

SEPARATE BUSES A familiar stereotype of school transportation: full-size buses are for the general student population, and the "short" buses - the "handicapped" buses - are for those with disabilities or special needs that receive special education.

Transporting special-education students separately still is common in many districts. Maryann Fasold, a transportation route supervisor with the Sarasota County School District in Florida, says that the buses for special-needs students serve each of the district's 32 schools. However, the district's standard buses don't have space to accommodate wheelchairs or secure them safely.

Districts that own their own buses, as Sarasota County does, typically can't afford the cost of upgrading their entire fleet to models that are more accommodating to students with special needs.

There are other valid reasons that districts decide to transport students with disabilities separately. In some cases, students' physical conditions or behavioral tendencies necessitate that they ride on specialized buses. A standard bus ride might be too rough for a student with brittle bones; a student with a behavioral disorder might be too disruptive to ride on a standard bus.

Many students with special needs have to be picked up at their doorstep instead of a collection point, and the longer size of standard buses means they can't be maneuvered as easily on narrow streets and cul de sacs to reach those homes.

FLEXIBLE SEATING As bus manufacturers have improved their products, schools have more flexibility in how they use their vehicles. That gives districts the capacity to let more students with special needs ride on the same buses as other students.

"More and more we are getting away from the idea of the `handicapped' bus," says Peter Grandolfo, manager of safety and special programs for Chicago Public Schools. "It's better for the district in a lot of cases, and the students get the opportunity to interact more with their peers."

Newer models of buses have seating on tracks. This allows districts to use their vehicles more efficiently by removing and reinstalling seats as the transportation needs of students vary.

"You have the flexibility to move the seats," says Grandolfo. "You can change the configuration in such a way so you're not wasting the bus."

The tracked seating also allows schools to more easily meet new federal guidelines for transporting pre-school children in school buses. Those guidelines call for spacing between seats greater than that in standard buses.

To give districts even more flexibility, Grandolfo says schools should consider acquiring buses with lifts installed, or with cutouts to accommodate installation at a later date. That is easier to accomplish in a large district such as Chicago, which each year can anticipate a high number of students with special needs.

Having the right equipment on hand can be more difficult in a small district, which may not have encountered a student's specific disability before.

HOLD ON TIGHT Lifts get students onto a vehicle, and open floor space provides room for them and their equipment, but the ride won't be safe or comfortable unless they are securely restrained.

In the past, students in wheelchairs commonly rode on buses with their chairs sideways and secured with belts or cords. Subsequent testing has shown that such positioning was unsafe and that passengers in wheelchairs should face forward.

Once in the proper position, a wheelchair must be secured with restraints. A recommendation by the Society of Automotive Engineers suggests standards that restraints be able to keep a wheelchair and a 170-pound passenger in place in a 30-mph front-impact collision.

On newer buses, the track flooring that allows for seating flexibility also is used to secure wheelchairs as part of a tie-down restraint.

Besides floor tie-downs, students in wheelchairs should be protected with lap and shoulder seatbelts or harnesses.

NO SWEAT Some students with special needs don't need complicated apparatus, but require some out-of-the-ordinary accommodations to travel comfortably to school. For those with respiratory problems or other medically fragile conditions, air conditioning - a common convenience in automobiles, but still rare in school buses - is vital.

That is especially true in areas with warmer climates and is becoming more necessary as districts expand their summer course offerings or adopt year-round schedules. In some cases, students who attend specialized programs have to ride longer than average to reach their school and can't endure the travel without air conditioning.

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