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Universal Design

Making sense of universal design for schools.

Many changes have taken place over the last 40 years in the curriculum, teaching methodology, and design of school buildings to accommodate persons with disabilities. In the past, special-needs students were kept separate from the rest of the student body; however, today's school design has helped integrate these students into regular classrooms.

Depending upon the type of school (elementary or secondary) and the size of enrollment, one or two classrooms used to serve special-education needs. Sometimes existing buildings had adequate classrooms, but more often, the special-education classrooms were located in a leftover space, or a converted storage room.

As the legal requirements for educating students with disabilities began changing during the 1970s and into the 1980s, educational planners witnessed an expanding curriculum in the field of special education, which ultimately resulted in specialized classrooms created for students with disabilities.

User-friendly design

Two different attitudes seem to prevail regarding the necessity of making modifications to a regular classroom. One requires permanent changes by remodeling the classroom, which can be expensive for one student for one year. The other attitude is to adapt as best as possible to the existing classroom without expensive remodeling.

Regardless, converting an existing school into a user-friendly building for all students, staff and community presents one of the most unique challenges for a school district. Many people do not understand the difficulties encountered in remodeling for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or for the curriculum, and program enhancements and entitlements that have been added and mandated by state and federal governments. Some of the changes are mandated by law to serve the person with disabilities, some are desirable for educational program enhancements, and some are for making the building user-friendly for all.

Designing a user-friendly school building for students with disabilities, and designing one for those without disabilities, really should be one and the same. Conceptually, there should be no visible difference if the design is developed in a sensitive and sensible manner. Aesthetically, the building's exteriors and interiors should not create the appearance of a school building designed for specific types of users.

It is important to remember all of the various degrees of disabilities, whether physical or mental impairments, including visual and auditory disabilities. The concepts of universal design start with simple modifications to lever-type hardware, switches and controls; drinking fountains at the appropriate height; and widening doorways. Aesthetics, cost, safety, gender and cultural appropriateness also must be considered.

Although schools are attempting to mainstream as much as possible, it is still necessary to design several specialized classrooms of varying sizes to accommodate the unique needs of the student with disabilities for some of the school day. It is easier to accommodate the student with disabilities in a new building design than in an existing building. The existing school presents many obstacles, including small classrooms, changes in floor elevation, stairs, narrow halls, inadequate toilet facilities, poor ventilation, minimal electrical outlets and substandard lighting.

One general philosophy is that special-needs students need a home base from which to start the day before mainstreaming into the regular classroom. This room also can serve as the special-education teacher's office. Associated with this special-education classroom should be the handicapped toilet, wash basin, shower (in case bathing is necessary), and a small space with a residential washer and dryer for clothing.

Moving through

All users should be able to orient themselves, and maneuver quickly and efficiently throughout the building. The basic issues of function for all students include:

-Avoiding bottlenecks in the circulation pattern.

-Ensuring space utilization is orderly and clearly defined.

-Orienting users with good graphics.

-Assisting the visually impaired with color schemes.

-Eliminating sharp projecting objects from the wall.

-Locating freestanding planters and benches in areas other than main circulation routes.

-Providing adequate-width doors from connecting corridors to the central commons to ensure easy traffic flow.

While the designer can influence the ease of maneuvering through a hallway system, building codes and planning standards create problems. For example, stating that a school building should not exceed a predetermined total area per student, or that a specific classroom should be a certain size, makes the task more difficult. Ultimately, compromises are made because of total size and budget limitations that are detrimental to the final project. Instead of corridors being wide enough to accommodate the traffic flow, they are designed to the absolute minimum width dimension that meets code requirements.

The issue of people movement begins as one enters the site, whether coming to school as a walker, biker, car or bus passenger. Curb dropoff for all users, regardless of disabilities, should be located very close to the entry doors since all climates have some degree of inclement weather. The exterior entries should be very accessible from the driveway, and not cause a student to maneuver 50 to 150 feet to get to the entrance-cold weather, icy sidewalks, rain and snow create many obstacles for all persons. The vestibule should be adequate in size to accommodate good traffic flow between the two doors.

Visual graphics can provide orientation and directional movement for students and adults by incorporating color contrasts to identify a change in floor material, or even ramps. The building design can assist a person with inadequate vision by using larger lettering, sans-serif typefaces and high-contrast coloring.

Many schools have been designed with multiple floor levels, regardless of their total building area and the size of the total site-sometimes for functional reasons and sometimes for aesthetic reasons. The user-friendly design principles are the same for single-story or multiple-story construction, except for the accessibility of elevators or ramps. Obviously, in smaller schools with multiple floors, the elevator should be centralized. Large schools can vary from approximately 1,000 to 3,200 students, from 175,000 to 500,000 square feet; therefore, the final building design may require more than one elevator located in strategic locations.

Open classrooms

Designing the user-friendly classroom environment is a matter of common sense and creativity. Since curriculum changes and enhancements continue to occur and will continue to change, including special-education programs and needs, the design of the classroom should be adaptable to future changes.

Flexible team-learning areas are central areas that provide flexibility, adaptability and availability of space for creating a variety of student groupings in a supervised setting. They can be used for individual work, studying, testing, tutoring, small-group learning activities, and even for periodically gathering a large group in a less-than-formal lecture atmosphere. The learning areas also may be a mini-technology center or sub-resource center. These areas are easily adaptable to the special needs of the student with disabilities, whether in a large group, small group or individual setting.

Not only does the open-classroom concept promote ultimate flexibility for varying sizes of class groupings and teaching methods, but also it creates flexible space for accommodating the special needs of students with disabilities. Mainstreaming of students with disabilities into regular classroom environments sometimes requires additional area to accommodate unique needs, whether the student is confined to a wheelchair, needs a special desk, or needs an area to exercise without having to be transported to a special exercise station.

The small fixed classroom, whether 750 square feet or 900 square feet, is too confining to accommodate the special needs of the student with severe and profound disabilities. A minimal increase of 50 to 100 square feet allows for the needed space. Since a particular student moves to another grade or school after a year, it is not practical or economical to enlarge all classrooms for a small percentage of students.

Most older schools-60 to 100 years old-were designed with a standard classroom in the range of 550 to 700 square feet. These classrooms are not conducive to the needs of all users, unless the class sizes are reduced drastically. One solution may be remodeling three small classrooms into two larger classrooms if the enrollment will allow such a reduction.

Planners also should consider spaces and furnishings that are adaptable for wheelchairs to maneuver into each room and up to the furniture; floor-to-ceiling chalkboard and tackboard to accommodate students on the floors, in wheelchairs, or upright; special subdued lighting to accommodate children who are lying on the floor; and mechanical heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems that are designed for more individual room control.

In 1998, the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Board Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) published guidelines for accessibility for building elements used by children. The Department of Justice is now completing its review of the final guidelines for adoption as enforceable standards under Titles II and III of the ADA.

These standards generally will impact the design of elementary schools, early-childhood centers and middle schools, since the preliminary indication is that the standards will apply to children 12 years and younger. The proposed guidelines contain alternate specifications based on children's dimensions and anthropometrics for drinking fountains, water closets, toilet stalls, lavatories, sinks, and fixed or built-in seating and tables. Also, they may include standards for the acoustical performance of classrooms because of recent information regarding classroom listening conditions.

Their research shows an increase in temporary and permanent hearing loss among children, and that learning problems are being caused by excessive classroom noise and reverberation. The new standards also could apply to some degree to junior- and senior-high schools if these buildings contain a component for use by children 12 years and younger, such as an early-childhood center for the children of teenage mothers who are completing their high-school education.

As of March 3, 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students with disabilities who require special care during the school day are entitled to that care at public expense, as long as the services can be provided by someone other than a doctor. Consequently, integrating students with varying degrees of physical and mental disabilities into the regular classroom can be a positive and beneficial experience for both the special-education students and their nondisabled peers.

The first floor of the new Prairie Children Pre-School Center, Community Unit School District 204, Naperville, Ill., contains a pre-school for 360 students, and the second floor contains the administrative offices for the school district. The center represents a unique model for a pre-school operated by a public school district.

Federal and state laws mandate a free education for students with disabilities starting at age 3. This pre-school center is unique in that it is open for all eligible children in the community who desire to attend, except that non-disabled children must pay a tuition, just as if they were attending a private pre-school. The advantage for the children attending this school is that they are being taught by licensed and certified teachers. Also, the pre-school is staffed with qualified occupational therapy and physical therapy teachers, as well as a speech pathologist.

The goal is to have 15 students per classroom, five students with disabilities and 10 students without disabilities. Research has shown that the student with disabilities learns best with his age-appropriate, non-disabled peers. The school contains 24 classrooms with at least three adults in each classroom.

Karen Sullivan, early-childhood supervisor, was involved in the programming and design phases. Three issues created compromises: a small site, budget and the priority given to maximizing the number of classrooms. As a result, compromises were made in the building that would not have been desirable under ideal conditions: a larger multipurpose room; several small-group rooms to assist individualized instruction; an indoor-growth motor room to allow children to exercise inside during inclement weather; a staff lounge; and bigger playgrounds-outdoor learning areas.

"The building serves our needs and provides a user-friendly environment. Since I was involved in the early planning and design process, I understand the limitations of the tight site and budget restrictions," says Sullivan. "We had to make compromises because of the small site and the need to maximize the total number of classrooms. The classrooms are very adequate in size because separate teacher offices were provided adjacent to the classroom."

Sometimes, though, being ADA compliant is not always in the best interest of all students. While the sinks at the pre-school are ADA-compliant to provide wheelchair access, they are too high for the pre-schoolers. The school had to buy stools for all students to use the sinks, which creates a problem for all students-with or without disabilities.

The design of the new 326,000-square-foot Maple Grove Senior High School, Independent School District 279, Maple Grove, Minn., provides a unique concept for accommodating students with disabilities. Pedestrian access to the three-story building is from two levels because of the sloping site. The front entry provides easy access to the middle floor, and the lower level is accessed from the side and rear of the building.

The school was designed with unique, user-friendly concepts. The middle level is accessed from the front entry, and virtually all academic spaces and support services are available without using the elevator. The building design responds to the interdisciplinary, integrated thematic curriculum. Each floor of the three-story classroom wing contains four flexible family units with wide entries for easy access. Each unit is an integrated interdisciplinary house with four classrooms for English, math, social studies and a flexible team-learning area. Also, each floor contains science, art, tech-ed modules, special needs and a locker commons.

The middle level also contains the media center, auditorium, vocational education, music, home economics, special services, and administration. A student with disabilities can be serviced easily for all of his or her needs on the middle level, except for food service and physical education. The elevator is centrally located.

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