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When the School Building Itself Is a Barrier to Equal Education

Emma Albert, 14, has never entered her school through the front door.  

The eighth grader has a vascular malformation on her left leg, which means that since the first grade she used a wheelchair though she could switch to crutches for short distances. And it means that she could access only the areas of her school that were wheelchair accessible. So, each morning she entered The Manhattan School for Children through a side entrance. 

When it came time to apply to high school, she lamented that her search was driven more by accessibility than school offerings. 

“They don’t really care about, ‘What are your interests outside of school?’ It’s like, as long as it’s accessible, it’s a good school for you,” she said.

Emma and other students spoke at a recent panel on school accessibility, organized by the ARISE Coalition and Parents for Inclusive Education. 

“Some schools are completely accessible; most are not,” said Abey Weitzman, 13, who uses a wheelchair full-time. “It is a shame that in a city that houses one of the largest financial systems in the world, I can’t get in the school across the street from my house.”

Fully accessible school buildings are scarce in New York City. About 17 percent of schools (less than 6 percent of school buildings) are fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as noted in a scathing report by the U.S. Justice Department in December 2015. These are schools that are accessible to someone in a wheelchair, with ramps, elevators and adequately-sized bathroom stalls. Doors do not require too much force to open; there is adequate signage; and office counters are not too high.