Sarah Keating is a bright, attractive, college-bound senior at Westmount High School in suburban St. Louis. Most mornings she is driven to school by her mother and arrives about 15 minutes before her first class – chemistry. She is dropped off at the main entry turnaround, moves easily up a ramp designed to handle her wheelchair, through power-assisted doors and along a wide corridor. The lab is on the second floor, so she takes the elevator located near the main entrance and easily arrives at the door to her class. Once inside, however, Sarah feels less a part of her class. Today’s class involves an experiment in a fume hood. To allow other non-disabled students to work with Sarah at the same station, a hood was specified that is 8 feet wide, with knee space for a wheelchair. The deck is lowered to 34 inches so disabled students can reach equipment and materials within. Unfortunately, the knee space is located in the center of the hood while controls for gas, water, air and exhaust are located on either end of the hood, beyond Sarah’s reach. Additionally, the controls are cross-handles, which require twisting of the wrist to operate. Today, Sarah must rely on her lab partner to operate the equipment and her experience with this particular class is less than complete.
Making the act work
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an evolving process; its impact on schools continues to be felt. There is nothing in the “ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities” (ADAAG) or in the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards that specifically relates to science facilities. Thus, specific applications require judgment on the part of the facility planner. In the case of Westmount High School, although access to the science facilities is made easy, use of various equipment is not. For instance, fume hoods are major pieces of lab equipment that must be made accessible to the disabled. Many equipment manufacturers produce hoods that allow frontal approach in a wheelchair, and that have controls located within adequate reach range. In addition, care must be taken to protect the wheelchair user
against contact with hot water and drain pipes beneath the hood, and fume hood doors must be operable within specific reach ranges and require a maximum operating force of 5 lbf (foot pound). Westmount’s labs have fixed benches that have significantly more space between them for circulation of wheelchairs and to permit people to pass or stand behind wheelchair users while they are at the workstation. This extra space allows students like Sarah to easily participate in most of the class activities, making her chemistry learning experience more valuable. Sarah’s wheelchair requires a minimum of 32 inches for passage at a point and 36 inches continuously along a path of travel. Areas also have been provided on the perimeter to allow her to turn her wheelchair around, typically a 60-inch diameter circular space or a T-shaped space of 60 inches overall. A specially-designed laboratory station has been integrated into the classroom as part of the lab configuration to allow wheelchair users to participate fully in student groupings and projects. Where student laboratory stations are fixed or built-in, at least 5 percent of the stations (but not less than one) must be accessible. The top of the accessible lab station should be between 28 inches and 34 inches above the floor (at least 2 inches lower than the 36-inch standard of most “off-the-shelf” lab stations). With the increased use of computers in the classroom, tables and countertops in new schools may be lower in general practice, as the ideal height for a computer table is 26 inches to 30 inches. Clear knee space must be provided that is at least 27 inches high, 30 inches wide and 19 inches deep, and the 30-inch by 40 inch clear floor space for a wheelchair cannot overlap the knee space by more than 19 inches.