Global news outlet
Jul. 25, 2020
Washington, D.C. – Today, Congressmen Jerrold Nadler (NY-10), chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, José E. Serrano (NY-15), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA-03), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor released a groundbreaking U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report entitled “K-12 Education: School Districts Need Better Information to Help Improve Access for People with Disabilities.” The report found that a staggering two-thirds of public schools have physical barriers that limit access for people, including students, with disabilities and may be out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) nearly thirty years after its passage. School districts that participated in GAO surveys and in-person site assessments cited a lack of outreach, technical assistance, and guidance from the Department of Justice, which is responsible for the majority of enforcement efforts of the historic civil rights law, as well as funding constraints as major obstacles to bringing their facilities into full compliance. The report was requested by the three Members in April 2018.
“Our public schools and the education they provide are critical in helping students reach their full potential
and achieve their dreams,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). “Unfortunately, this GAO report shows that thirty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many of our schools still
have significant physical barriers that could limit access for people with disabilities. I urge the administration to immediately adopt GAO’s recommendations to address the prevalence of these barriers, and I look forward to working with my colleagues
in Congress to continue to advance the fight for disability rights.”
“Every student deserves equal access to a quality public education under the law. Yet, according to GAO, nearly two-thirds of public school districts, which serve millions of students across the country, are not fully accessible. This is an issue that not only limits our students’ full potential, but also the full participation of family members, teachers, and staff with physical disabilities in a public school facility. The report is clear: the federal government must do more to provide basic tools to help schools become compliant and enforce this vital law. The Department of Justice has the authority to provide technical assistance and guidance to help school districts interpret the ADA, but has failed to do so in a meaningful way. It is unacceptable that thirty years later, many schools are still failing our students and families,” said Chairman Serrano, who led the effort to request the report, and chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee responsible for funding the Department of Justice.
“Sadly, this GAO report shows that thirty years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, its promise has yet to fully be realized,” said Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott. “According to the report, a vast majority of schools have physical barriers that would limit access for individuals with disabilities. While an estimated 70 percent of districts had renovations planned in the next few years, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on school resources is putting these necessary improvements at risk. This is the now second GAO report in two months that identifies the need for significant investment in improving school facilities. It is clear that the Senate must pass both the Heroes Act and the Moving Forward Act, which will provide states, localities, and school districts the resources they need to make schools safe and accessible for all students.”
GAO investigators conducted a nationally representative survey of public school districts from August to October 2019, and traveled to 16 school districts and visited 55 schools in California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico and Rhode Island to conduct in-person assessments of school facilities. The schools chosen were based on a range of demographic and geographic features, such as poverty rates, population density, age of school buildings, and state funding, that helped produce a diverse and representative sample.
The most common physical barriers cited were steep ramps and lack of accessible door hardware, which were typically found in common areas, like restrooms, interior doorways, and classrooms. While seemingly minor, these design flaws can have profound impacts on the safety and well-being of individuals with disabilities, especially students who spend the majority of their day on campus. The report also found that in the rush to make school campuses safer in the era of widespread gun violence and mass shootings, with a lack of coordinating guidance, these efforts often come at the expense of accessibility upgrades or inadvertently jeopardize the safety and security of people with disabilities.
The report focused on three key recommendations that the Department of Justice, and other federal agencies that assist with ADA enforcement, must take to help school districts improve compliance:
The impetus for the study came after the former U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York issued a scathing report in 2015 on the state of compliance in New York City’s public school system. The analysis found that nearly 83 percent of schools were not fully accessible. Other local and national media, and former New York City Public Advocate Tish James, had also reported on the City’s failure to provide adequate accommodations for students with physical disabilities.
Even before the pandemic, chronic neglect of America’s public schools forced students and educators across the country to learn and work in outdated and hazardous school buildings. Now, the COVID19 pandemic has exacerbated the consequences of our failure to make necessary investments in school infrastructure.
On May 15, House Democrats passed the Heroes Act, which directs more than $100 billion in emergency education funding to help schools cover unexpected costs that are necessary to reopening safely. It also provides nearly a $1 trillion in state and local funding to fill unprecedented budget shortfalls that will likely lead to devastating cuts to public education.
On July 1, House Democrats passed the Moving Forward Act, which invests $130 billion toward repairing and modernizing school facilities that endanger the health and safety of students and school staff.