Physical and health disabilities have always existed yet have been treated differently across civilizations, cultures, and settings. Students with physical disabilities were initially educated in institutions that could provide a centralized place for equipment and treatment. The first of these institutions was the Industrial School for Crippled and Deformed Children in Boston, established in 1890. Beginning in the 1900s public schools for “crippled children” were established but were self-contained, typically housed in a separate facility or classroom, and did not allow children to interact with their peers without physical disabilities. Through advocacy, legislation, shifts in attitudes, and advances in medical practices, more inclusive settings became available for all children, including those with physical and health needs.
Today, federal laws protect individuals and outline the accommodations that are required to ensure access and participation for all individuals regardless of ability or disability. Most physical accommodations can be implemented with minimal cost and are likely to benefit all individuals with or without disabilities. This entry looks at the laws that establish criteria for the education of children with disabilities and examines how those guidelines are implemented in today’s schools.
Three federal laws most readily pertain to the education and care of children with disabilities. They are described briefly in this section.
Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004). IDEA is a federal law (most recently reauthorized and amended by Congress in 2004) that governs all special education services for children in the United States from birth to age twenty-one. In order for children to receive special education services under IDEA, they must be in one of the following categories or have one of the following disabling conditions: autism, deaf-blindness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment (including deafness), mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, or visual impairment (including blindness). This law stipulates that all children are entitled to a free, appropriate, public education.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 is a civil rights statute that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Schools must ensure equal access for children with disabilities and also provide them with reasonable accommodations. The law covers all programs or activities, whether public or private, that receive federal financial assistance. Reasonable accommodations may include providing a computer, seating students in the front of the class, modifying homework, or providing necessary services. Typically, children covered under Section 504 have disabilities that do not fit within the eligibility categories of IDEA or that are due to accident or illness, which is not permanent. Under Section 504, any person who has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity is considered disabled. Learning and social development are included under the list of major life activities.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990). Like Section 504, the ADA is civil rights legislation for individuals with disabilities. Unlike Section 504, the ADA applies to almost every entity in the United States, regardless of whether it receives federal funds; churches and private clubs are the only two entities that are exempt from the ADA. For instance, private schools that are not associated with a religious organization have to comply with the provisions of the ADA. Schools that may be exempt from Section 504 because they do not receive federal funds are not exempt from making accommodations based on ADA. The ADA contains several titles that focus on various aspects of disability discrimination. Title I prohibits discrimination in employment. Title II prohibits discrimination in state and local governmental entities, including schools. Title III addresses public accommodations, including hotels, restaurants, department stores, grocery stores, and banks. In all instances, entities delineated are required to make reasonable accommodations or modifications necessary to ensure persons with disabilities have access to goods and services.
Some students have disabilities that they are born with or have acquired and may be unable to undertake the same physical activities as their peers. This includes individuals who have difficulty walking, individuals who have difficulty using their hands or arms, or individuals with restricted growth. Etiology is varied and includes conditions affecting bones, muscles, nerves and tendons, spinal cord, and the brain. The effect of the disability will also vary, and students may experience weariness or pain, which may become worse when they are fatigued. Several types of physical accommodations may be necessary.
For students with limited, or no use of their hands, arms, or legs, a range of physical accommodations and technology may be of assistance. Students may benefit from someone to take notes, undertake experiments, carry or open books or physically write assignments for them. Some students experience excessive fatigue or may have medical conditions that require providing a place to rest during the day. Students who are wheelchair users or who have conditions affecting their backs may need specially designed chairs, desks, or positioning equipment.
Tape recorders and adapted keyboards or software can be critical for note taking and other assignments for students who cannot write or write as quickly as others. Keyboards can be adapted for size and shape or include a pointer or switch device operated by any part of the body that moves. Software is available that will predict what a student is writing from input of the first few letters of the word. This word prediction capability is particularly useful for those whose writing speed is severely impacted. Voice recognition software allows students to dictate, and the software will type in their response. Both word prediction and voice input may be useful for other students.
For many students, the physical environment may form the greatest barrier, and accommodations will be necessary. The academic setting includes areas where students typically congregate, including libraries, dining rooms, and social areas, as well as classrooms and labs. In the academic setting, access accommodations may include installing ramps or lifts, moving lift buttons to an accessible height, removing areas with fixed seating to allow wheelchair access, and installing accessible toilets. It may be necessary to modify rooms to ensure access to certain lectures, seminars, or other sessions, including altering entries, the height of lab benches, or seating.
For college and university students living in residential facilities, accommodations may include larger rooms to allow entry and maneuvering of wheelchairs, guide animals, and other mobility devices; appropriate surface heights and hoists or rails in bathrooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and study areas; designated parking spaces; nearby rooms for personal assistants; and access to telephone and laundry facilities.
Universal design refers to an environment that can be used by people with or without disabilities, eliminating or minimizing the need for special accommodations. Creating an environment accessible to people with disabilities usually benefits others and can greatly increase access. For example, curb cuts in sidewalks are designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to those using wheelchairs, yet benefit parents with strollers, children and adults using bicycles, roller-skates, or skateboards, and delivery persons with rolling carts. There are a number of design changes that are cost effective to implement.
These are the major components of universal design. Equitable use means that the design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Flexibility in use means that the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Simple and intuitive designs are easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Designs with perceptible information communicate necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. With tolerance for error, designs minimize hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Designs should also involve low physical effort, so they can be used efficiently and comfortably with a minimum of fatigue. Size and space for approach and use must be provided so that users can approach, reach, manipulate, and use a facility regardless of their body size, posture, or mobility.
- Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F., 526 U.S. 86 (1999).
- Fadiman, A. (1997). The spirit catches you and you fall down. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
- Heller, K. W. (1999). Classroom modification checklist for students with physical and health impairments. Atlanta, GA: Bureau for Students with Physical and Health Impairments.
- Rapport, M. J. (1996). Legal guidelines for the delivery of special health care services in schools. Exceptional Children, 62, 537–549.
- National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education: http://www.washington.edu/accessit
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