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Preventing Physical Barriers in School

Currently, there are no AODA education standards. However, two AODA standards development committees have drafted recommendations of guidelines that AODA education standards should include. One committee has recommended guidelines for the kindergarten to grade twelve (K-12) education system. In this article, we outline recommended guidelines for preventing physical barriers in school.

Preventing Physical Barriers in School

Physical barriers, also called architectural barriers, happen when features of buildings or spaces limit people’s access. For instance, some physical barriers that students, parents, or staff with disabilities may face in school are:

These and other physical barriers prevent students, parents, and staff from entering or moving safely through their schools. Therefore, the Committee recommends strategies to remove many of the barriers present in Ontario schools.

Moreover, the Committee notes that current requirements in the Ontario Building Code (the Code) and the AODA’s Design of Public Spaces Standards do not address accessibility barriers in schools. As a result, the Education Standards should include requirements to build new schools without barriers. Furthermore, other new buildings where any school activities may take place should also be fully accessible. Moreover, these requirements should also apply to schools that are being renovated. Likewise, the Education Standards should also mandate accessibility improvements, or retrofits, in schools that are not being renovated. These requirements should make school spaces accessible for students, parents, and staff with all disabilities, including:

  • Visual impairments
  • Hearing disabilities
  • Autism
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental health conditions
  • Mobility disabilities

For example, schools should have quiet rooms to support students needing a peaceful learning environment. Consequently, schools can assign unused spaces as quiet rooms.

School Board Physical Accessibility Plans

In addition, each school board should create and implement plans to ensure the accessibility of all schools by January 1st, 2025. First, school boards should determine how many schools they can afford to retrofit. Next, school boards can begin removing barriers on schools that they can make accessible most easily. Alternatively, they can start retrofitting schools in different areas, to serve students equitably across the school board. Moreover, if a school board does not plan to increase a school’s accessibility, the board should avoid renovating that building. Similarly, when choosing schools to close, boards should choose the least accessible schools, while continuing to operate buildings with fewer barriers. In addition, school boards should regularly report their progress toward reaching the goal of full accessibility by the deadline.

Furthermore, design professionals involved in building, renovating, or retrofitting schools should have experience in accessible design. For instance, design professionals include:

  • Architects
  • Interior designers
  • Landscape architects

These professionals should know more about accessible design than the requirements in the Code and the Design of Public Spaces Standards. In other words, they should have specific training in accessible design, which prepares them to create spaces inclusive of:

  • Children and adults
  • People with various disabilities

In short, school boards should only hire design professionals who can demonstrate that they have this knowledge and experience.

Similarly, school boards should also hire experienced accessibility consultants to give advice on new construction, renovations, or retrofits. Consequently, these consultants should be present from the beginning of a project. In addition, each school board should request more feedback on the accessibility of designs, through reviews from the:

  • School and school board accessibility committees
  • Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC)
  • School board trustees

In turn, these committees should base their reviews on discussions with students, staff, parents, and volunteers with disabilities.

Technical Requirements for Preventing Physical Barriers in School

Moreover, the Ministry of Education should provide funding for the purpose of improving physical accessibility in Ontario schools. In addition, the Education Standards should include technical requirements for making various features of school spaces and buildings barrier-free. For example, requirements should ensure outdoor access, including on features such as:

  • Entrances
  • Outdoor paths of travel
  • Bike parking
  • Rest areas
  • Tactile directional indicators and signage
  • Good lighting
  • Emergency safety zones
  • Security access, if needed
  • Heated walkways
  • Playground equipment, school yards, and outdoor sports facilities

Likewise, there should be technical requirements for accessible passenger drop-off, in addition to accessible parking. Similarly, requirements for indoor elements of buildings should include:

  • Doors inside buildings
  • Windows, glazed screens, and sidelights
  • Floor surfaces
  • Hallway widths
  • Offices, reception areas, work areas, and meeting rooms
  • Elevators
  • Ramps
  • Stairs
  • Consistent layouts and room numbering
  • Classrooms and laboratories
  • Waiting areas
  • Washrooms
  • Water fountains
  • Lockers
  • Gyms
  • Pools and change rooms
  • Cafeterias
  • Libraries
  • Stages or podiums
  • Sensory or soundproof rooms
  • Areas of refuge

In short, all these technical requirements should prevent the physical barriers that students, staff, and parents face.