In addition to their role in education, public schools serve as voting locations, emergency shelters, and more. But can people with disabilities access all public school buildings?

A new US Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found two-thirds of school districts had facilities with physical barriers that may limit access. Barriers, such as a lack of accessible door hardware and steep ramps, can make it challenging for students, teachers, and others with disabilities to use public school facilities (see fig.). In 55 schools across six states, the most common areas with barriers GAO observed were restrooms, interior doorways, and classrooms. GAO also observed barriers related to safety and security. For example, for security, some schools had installed double-door vestibules with limited maneuvering space that could trap people who use wheelchairs.

An estimated 70 percent of districts had large-scale renovations, small-scale upgrades, or accessibility evaluations planned in the next 3 calendar years, but frequently cited funding constraints as a challenge to these efforts, says GAO. Districts also identified the need to prioritize projects that keep buildings operational, such as roofing and heating projects. In addition, GAO's survey, observations during site visits, and interviews with national disability groups revealed a tension between making safety and security upgrades and improving physical accessibility.

The Department of Justice (Justice) has not provided technical assistance on physical accessibility in schools, and GAO's surveys indicate such help is needed, notes GAO. Justice has authority to provide information on interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), including for public schools, and it has provided technical assistance regarding other public facilities, such as stadiums. In addition, Justice, along with the Department of Education (Education) and other federal agencies, recently launched a new website on school safety, but it does not include specific information on how to improve accessibility of public school facilities or provide information on ADA requirements in the context of school safety upgrades. Without such information, federal agencies may miss opportunities to help ensure that people with disabilities have safe and secure access to public school facilities, adds GAO. 

GAO recommends that Justice work with Education to (1) provide information specific to accessibility of public school facilities and (2) provide information on federal accessibility requirements in the context of public school safety and security.