Scott, Serrano, Nadler Release Groundbreaking GAO Report on 30th Anniversary of ADA that Finds Two-Thirds of U.S. Public Schools Have Barriers That May Limit Access for Students with Disabilities

July 24, 2020
Press Release
Report Recommends Department of Justice Provide School Districts with Greater Outreach, Guidance, and Technical Assistance to Improve ADA Accessibility and Accountability

As originally released by the Committee on Education & Labor

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Congressman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA-03), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Congressmen José E. Serrano (NY-15), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Congressman Jerrold Nadler (NY-10), chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, released a groundbreaking U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report entitled “K-12 Education: School Districts Need Better Information to Help Improve Access for People with Disabilities.” 

The report found that a staggering two-thirds of public schools have physical barriers that limit access for people, including students, with disabilities and may be out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) nearly thirty years after its passage. School districts that participated in GAO surveys and in-person site assessments cited a lack of outreach, technical assistance, and guidance from the Department of Justice, which is responsible for the majority of enforcement efforts of the historic civil rights law, as well as funding constraints as major obstacles to bringing their facilities into full compliance. The report was requested by the three Members in April 2018.

“Sadly, this GAO report shows that thirty years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, its promise has yet to fully be realized,” said Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott. “According to the report, a vast majority of schools have physical barriers that would limit access for individuals with disabilities. While an estimated 70 percent of districts had renovations planned in the next few years, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on school resources is putting these necessary improvements at risk. This is the now second GAO report in two months that identifies the need for significant investment in improving school facilities. It is clear that the Senate must pass both the Heroes Act and the Moving Forward Act, which will provide states, localities, and school districts the resources they need to make schools safe and accessible for all students.” 

“Every student deserves equal access to a quality public education under the law. Yet, according to GAO, nearly two-thirds of public school districts, which serve millions of students across the country, are not fully accessible. This is an issue that not only limits our students’ full potential, but also the full participation of family members, teachers, and staff with physical disabilities in a public school facility. The report is clear: the federal government must do more to provide basic tools to help schools become compliant and enforce this vital law. The Department of Justice has the authority to provide technical assistance and guidance to help school districts interpret the ADA but has failed to do so in a meaningful way. It is unacceptable that thirty years later, many schools are still failing our students and families,” said Chairman Serrano, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. 

“Our public schools and the education they provide are critical in helping students reach their full potential and achieve their dreams,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).  “Unfortunately, this GAO report shows that thirty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many of our schools still have significant physical barriers that could limit access for people with disabilities. I urge the administration to immediately adopt GAO’s recommendations to address the prevalence of these barriers, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to continue to advance the fight for disability rights.”

GAO investigators conducted a nationally representative survey of public school districts from August to October 2019, and traveled to 16 school districts and visited 55 schools in California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico and Rhode Island to conduct in-person assessments of school facilities. The schools chosen were based on a range of demographic and geographic features, such as poverty rates, population density, age of school buildings, and state funding, that helped produce a diverse and representative sample. 

The most common physical barriers cited were steep ramps and lack of accessible door hardware, which were typically found in common areas, like restrooms, interior doorways, and classrooms. While seemingly minor, these design flaws can have profound impacts on the safety and well-being of individuals with disabilities, especially students who spend the majority of their day on campus. The report also found that in the rush to make school campuses safer in the era of widespread gun violence and mass shootings, with a lack of coordinating guidance, these efforts often come at the expense of accessibility upgrades or inadvertently jeopardize the safety and security of people with disabilities. 

The report focused on three key recommendations that the Department of Justice, and other federal agencies that assist with ADA enforcement, must take to help school districts improve compliance: 

  1. The Department of Justice must use its authority to provide technical assistance, guidance, and outreach to school districts regarding ADA compliance. Compliance trainings, which are typical held at in-person conferences, can be costly and difficult to attend for school district personnel. Allowing trainings to be posted online or made available through webinars or other virtual platforms could ensure greater participation and, thus, compliance.
  1. The Department of Justice must do more to ensure the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, which lay out the regulations public facilities must undertake to remain in compliance with the ADA, and any forthcoming updates to these standards, are written and presented in a way that is understandable for school district maintenance personnel. Many school districts cited the difficulty and confusion in comprehending the technical terminology of the standards. Proactive outreach and technical assistance could assist school districts in understanding what is required of them under the law. 
  1. The Departments of Education, Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services should undertake greater efforts to ensure physical accessibility is at the heart of efforts to keep schools safe from the growing threat of gun violence. SchoolSafety.gov, the federal government’s recently-launched clearinghouse of recommendations for public school safety measures, lacks any mention of the ADA and does not provide concrete recommendations on improvements that may also keep people with disabilities safe during an attack on campus. This risks the safety and security of countless students and individuals with disabilities.

The impetus for the study came after the former U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York issued a scathing report in 2015 on the state of compliance in New York City’s public school system. The analysis found that nearly 83 percent of schools were not fully accessible. Other local and national media, and former New York City Public Advocate Tish James, had also reported on the City’s failure to provide adequate accommodations for students with physical disabilities. 

Even before the pandemic, chronic neglect of America’s public schools forced students and educators across the country to learn and work in outdated and hazardous school buildings. Now, the COVID19 pandemic has exacerbated the consequences of our failure to make necessary investments in school infrastructure.

On May 15, House Democrats passed the Heroes Act, which directs more than $100 billion in emergency education funding to help schools cover unexpected costs that are necessary to reopening safely. It also provides nearly a $1 trillion in state and local funding to fill unprecedented budget shortfalls that will likely lead to devastating cuts to public education. 

On July 1, House Democrats passed the Moving Forward Act, which invests $130 billion toward repairing and modernizing school facilities that endanger the health and safety of students and school staff.

To access the full GAO report, click here.  

###