Ten years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, US schools have drastically improved how they educate some 6.4 million students considered disabled - or about 12 percent of schoolchildren. But tight budgets and limited staffing can still stand in the way of providing those students with the same quality and access to education other kids have.
"The most important thing the ADA did was that it refocused public attention on disability issues and on requirements [for public schools] that had been around since" the early '70s, says Ken Warlick, director of special-education programs at the US Department of Education (DOE).
Most schools now have ramps at entrances, textbooks in Braille, and accessible bathrooms. There's also more attention paid to assisted technology, Mr. Warlick says.
For instance, at Rachel Carson Elementary in Chicago, principal Kathleen Mayer touts a new $14 million building that's fully ADA compliant. The school has wide bathrooms, an elevator, a computer lab with wheelchair carrels, even visual fire alarms for hearing-impaired students.
The school's main building has been more of a struggle to update because it's older.
Educators are also shifting focus from how to get kids into school to what kids are learning. The goal is to ensure quality education for disabled students, which often means integrating them as much as possible in mainstream classrooms. As a result, "we're seeing a tripling of the number of kids in college who have disabilities," says Warlick.
It hasn't always been this way. Judith Heumann, DOE assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, was denied the right to attend public school in the 1950s and '60s because she used a wheelchair. Instead, a teacher came to home-school her 2-1/2 hours a week. In fourth grade, she was in school, but segregated from other students. In high school she won the right to attend regular classes. "To begin to socialize with others that's what was difficult," she recalls. "I was expected to take the same tests. I was a good reader ... but I had never learned basic math."
Today, the DOE's Office for Civil Rights receives about 5,000 complaints annually, 60 percent of which allege discrimination on the basis of disability. But the movement has come a long way, school administrators say.
At West High School in Salt Lake City, the biggest change has been integrating even severely disabled students into mainstream classes, says principal Joyce Gray.
"The special-education students are doing well," she says. "There's no difference in how [teachers] treat them."
Ms. Heumann says she expects teachers will continue to pay closer attention to equal opportunities for disabled students, and that "will help open doors."
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