When I started school in the Malden public school system just outside Boston, Massachusetts in the late 1990s, accessibility and accommodations in the classroom were a significant challenge. It’s now been 28 years since the the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990. Because schools are covered under Title II of the ADA (along with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), I decided use this occasion as a benchmark to look at how attitudes and accessibility have changed (or haven’t changed) in the Greater Boston area school systems in the last nearly three decades.
Although my elementary school, Ferryway School, was technically accessible because it was built after 1990, my preschool and kindergarten classes were held in older buildings with more access violations. And even at Ferryway, students weren’t granted open access to use elevators, and my teachers pushed me to use the staircase regularly despite my mobility impairments and extreme difficulty getting down the stairs without other kids pushing me out of the way.
“In the elementary school years there were no elevators in the schools I attended,” says Heather Watkins, a member of the Rooted in Rights National Advisory Group who is a disability advocate, author, blogger, mother, and graduate of Emerson College who has muscular dystrophy. Watkins attended Boston public schools from 1977 to 1991 in Hyde Park, Roslindale, East Boston, and Roxbury. “Since I was more mobile, it was manageable; not ideal, but I was younger and I was trying to fit in even when it was difficult climbing the steps to board the school bus.”
During Watkins’ years in middle and high school, she attended schools that did have elevators and was given an elevator key for access. “I was fortunate to have administrators and teachers that were pretty accommodating with giving me that elevator key, one pulled it right off his key ring,” she explains. It’s not a linear change in attitudes from pre-ADA to post-ADA, as people might expect—that after the law passed, more administrators would be inclusive and ready to make going to school a better experience for kids with disabilities.
Despite that I went to elementary school years after the ADA, many of my school administrators and teachers during elementary school were disdainful of students with disabilities. My second grade teacher outright refused to allow me more than one bathroom break per eight hour day after I used “too many” because of digestive issues that come with my disability. It wasn’t until my mom complained directly to the principal that we were able to change that policy. I was really lucky, however, to have an occupational therapist who took me out of class weekly for meetings, and a dedicated counselor who helped me through some of my raw emotions I had about being a disabled kid in an ableist world. Ferryway’s school librarian was also accommodating, and often allowed me to check out more books than I was supposed to at a time because she knew reading was my strong subject. She wasn’t given any instruction from higher-ups on how to work with me; she actively chose to make learning a more accessible experience for me by helping me engage with materials that I loved.
Molding policies to fit disabled students’ needs is one way that school administrators both pre- and post-ADA have made an impact. “Each year in high school I was given 2 sets of books—one that stayed in school and the other to leave home so that I didn’t have to lug them back and forth losing spoons,” says Watkins. When I was younger, I was given extra time to travel between my classes, as well as extra time on tests and a school tutor I could meet with regularly to go over subjects I struggled with, like math and grammar.
Like administrative attitudes and policies, paratransit didn’t improve in a linear way after the ADA. When Watkins was in school, her mother made specific paratransit arrangements with the school because Watkins was having difficulty climbing the bus stairs. In contrast, I was automatically placed on paratransit when I transferred to a full-time special education classroom for my third grade year, even though I didn’t need access to it. It was most likely a school-wide policy that all special education students rode paratransit, rather than making it available by request. I had always had an IEP, but the special ed class was completely segregated from the other students in our year, taught by a single teacher, and we were rewarded weekly based on our progress toward personal goals. Watkins believes that paratransit could’ve been part of her automatic accommodations, and accessing it earlier would’ve made her younger public school years much easier.
The biggest improvement for Watkins, in her words, would have been buildings that were fully accessible for people with mobility disabilities. “This would have made traveling throughout school easier and more welcoming to students with compromised mobility,” she says. “It was hard trying to keep up!”
There’s no doubt that access to education has become easier for students with disabilities, but we also have a long way to go. Many of the issues Watkins experienced in the 80s and 90s still exist today. And while I was extremely fortunate to have some tailor-made accommodations, pushback from administrators and teachers made it nearly impossible to get what I needed and feel safe and supported as a disabled student. Disabled students would benefit significantly from changing the attitude that we are burdens, and recognizing that accessibility is not just a necessity; it’s a right.