Audit flags 200-plus accessibility issues in Amherst-Pelham schools 

  • Amherst School Superintendent Michael Morris GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/29/2019 11:29:01 PM

AMHERST – A district-wide audit of accessibility in Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools shows that all six school buildings have a long list of areas that do not conform with state and federal accessibility requirements.

Problems in the draft report, presented at the Jan. 22 School Committee meeting, include a lack of Braille signage, inaccessible routes to playgrounds and sports fields and problems of accessibility in bathrooms.

In total, the report identified more than 200 areas of the buildings that do not comply with federal and state regulations.

“It’s painful to read these reports ... No one should feel great leaving the meeting tonight about what we read,” Superintendent Michael Morris said at last week’s meeting.

The school district commissioned the report after a parent and the Special Education Parent Advisory Council requested an accessibility audit last year. Kessler McGuinness & Associates, LLC (KMA), a design and accessibility planning firm in Newton, conducted audits in November and December of 2018 and presented a draft of the report that details its findings at the Jan. 22 meeting.

In all elementary schools and the middle school, the report concluded that many bathrooms do not include an accessible stall.

Major problems in Fort River and Wildwood Elementary Schools include a lack of accessible routes to the playgrounds, doors without tactile or Braille signage and reading areas in libraries that are inaccessible.

Another major issue highlighted at the meeting is inconsistent and unlevel ground outside the schools, likely due to maintenance or weather.

“It’s a hazard for anyone using a cane, anybody who has lower vision and not using a cane, somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who’s pushing a stroller,” Stephane Pierre Louis, an associate at KMA, told the school committee. “It’s a hazard for anyone, really.”

School Committee member Anastasia Ordonez said at the meeting that she found parts of the report “troubling.”

“In particular, the lack of accessibility to playgrounds and sports fields across all the schools seems to be a real barrier for students to be able to participate in recess and get out and enjoy time with friends,” she said.

The findings are not that surprising for old buildings, Pierre Louis said.

“Usually these buildings because they are so old they are grandfathered into the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act),” Pierre Louis said. “When we get called in on projects like this, it’s typical that we find most of the classrooms are not accessible ... It’s not out of the ordinary.”

The Amherst school buildings were all originally constructed before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990.

At the state level, the rules and regulations of the Architectural Access Board are triggered by large changes to the building.

“Basically, the language of the code says if you touch anything in the building that exceeds 30 percent of the assessed value of the building, you have to make everything accessible,” Pierre Louis explained at the meeting.

Federal ADA requirements say that there must be “proactive effort” to continue to make the schools more accessible, and violations of the law are typically triggered by complaints or lawsuits, Pierre Louis told the Gazette in a phone interview.

Nate Budington, a parent of a current Amherst Regional High School student who uses a wheelchair, requested the report at a September School Committee meeting.

Nancy Stewart, president of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, also submitted a letter to the School Committee in support of requesting a formal audit.

When Budington’s daughter was in middle school, she suffered a severe autoimmune attack, and within hours became paraplegic and now uses a wheelchair.

Overall, Budington said the district has been very responsive in handling accessibility issues for his daughter.

“I have very few complaints about how the school has handled the school access issue,” he said. “The experience has been far more positive than negative.”

But some problems remain, such as a lack of accessible bathrooms in the middle school girls’ locker room, Budington said.

“The girls locker room in the gym does not have a handicap stall — that’s kind of an egregious lapse,” he said.

The lack of an accessible stall in the girls locker room was cited in the KMA report.

And there are details that go unnoticed by many, like the width and weight of a door, that can be accessibility issues, Budington explained.

“If you’re not in this world, it’s easy to not notice this stuff,” he said.

Budington said he understands that it is not financially feasible to fix every issue, however; he wants to see the district figure out what to address.

It would more than $1 million to fix everything in the report, but KMA encouraged the school to prioritize issues to address.

Superintendent Michael Morris told the Gazette that now that school officials have the information, the district will need to figure out how to prioritize issues to be fixed over a multi-year proces and that the district is pursuing work with the same consulting firm to assist with that process. Discussion of the report will be included in this year’s capital budget talks, Morris told the Gazette. Morris said the district has already surveyed families and staff and that KMA will add the information to the report before it is finalized.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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