Making the Physical Education Environment Handicap Accessible

This article presents some of the main guidelines mandated by the Architecture Barrier Act 1968 (ABA) and American with Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA), as well as suggestions to make the physical education environment compliant with the laws. These laws work together to help ensure buildings are readily accessible and services are readily achievable.

Between 1968-2008 amendments were made to improve the law’s ability to meet the unique needs of people with disabilities. However, following the “letter of the law” and the “intent” of the law is not the same. Accessibility is more than ramps, parking spaces, and dimensions of restrooms. Accessibility also impacts equipment, playing fields, pathways, programs, and polices that all contribute to the environment promoting equal access. We encourage all physical educators to go beyond what is legally required and make real changes that allow all students with disabilities full access and enjoyment in physical education.

When thinking about accessibility it’s important ask yourself, “Can a student who uses a wheelchair, access and participate in the activity?” If a students who uses a wheelchair either manual or battery powered can participate successfully, then the environment should be appropriate for all levels of disability. However, if the answer is “No,” then your program or services are not readily achievable and accessible to all.

For example, if individuals using a wheelchair or a device that aids in walking are not able to get themselves from the gym to the playing field (e.g., for soccer, baseball, and playground), then accessibility is an issue. For this situation, a pathway should be constructed to allow students using wheelchairs or walkers to access the field of play. Further, once these students are on the field can they perform the activity and is there equipment they can use? Once Again, if the answer is “No,” then equipment, surfaces, and activities need modifying.

It’s important to remember that most playgrounds and playing fields are designed for able-bodied students and have swings, monkey bars, slides, sand or wood-chip surfaces, deep grass, and barriers or ledges encircling equipment and play areas. Simply providing an accessible path is not sufficient. Playgrounds and fields need equipment that is accessible from the ground (e.g., tic-tac-toe, drums, bells, swing floors) and a surface that allows wheelchairs to move freely (rubber, clay, concrete, astro-turf). Too often, students who use wheelchairs are left with few or no activities once at the field of play. Physical educators should strive to find ways to improve these conditions.

ABA & ADA Guideline at a Glance
– Accessible parking spaces that are wide and close to entrances
– 2% of parking lot must be dedicated to handicap parking spaces
– Accessible front entrance with curb cuts at appropriate locations
– Ramps and ramp specifications
– Hall specifications
– Low counters in check-in areas
– Low counters at snack and juice bar
– Proper height in hydration stations
– Audible and visual alarm systems
– Accessible phones
– At least one TTY telephone available for use by people who are deaf or have difficulty speaking
– Weather protection at entrance doors
– Power door openers at exterior entrances
– Restroom details and shower specifications
– Accessible sauna and steam room

– Gym, locker room, and bathroom for people who have low vision/blind or use mobility aids and wheelchairs
– Space for wheelchair user to approach and to maneuver between pieces of exercise equipment (36- 48′ clear floor space between equipment)
– Extra space at the end of a row of exercise equipment (60″ diameter/radius turning area)
– Tactile lettering and Braille on selected signs
– Large text signs and picture describing how to use equipment
– Written materials available on audiocassette for people who are blind
– Extra chairs or specialized chairs to accommodate persons who would like to participate while seated
– Arm ergometer, pulley machine, stretch bands, or free weights for students unable to use lower limb but upper limb capable
– Extra sport wheelchairs available for increase maneuverability and participation in physical activities
– Interior and exterior doors that are at least 36 inches wide and easy to open
– Lower water fountains (36 inches in high)
– Paraprofessional training in the use of special adapted equipment, basic sign language, physical assistance/prompting, and one-two person lifts
– Awareness and sensitivity training for all professional personnel about interacting with students who have disabilities

Locker-rooms & Restrooms
– Accessible bathrooms large enough for a wheelchair user to maneuver (60″x60″)
– Door to stall should be at least 32 inches wide
– More than one accessible toilet (left-handed and right-handed)
– Handrails are needed and minimum of 36 inches long
– Accessible lockers by wheelchair (48″ maximum high from floor) and clear floor space (30″x48″)
– Accessible changing room (5′ turning diameter) with bench (48″x28″x18″)
– Pathways (36″-48″)
– Private changing table (curtain enclosure)
– Shower controls should be at height of 40 inches and detachable head handle reachable at 43 inches
– Remove barriers in shower stalls
– Accessible shower stall bench (18″)
– Several shower chairs (plastic chair with wheels)

– Accessible entrances into swimming pool area
– 2 Accessible entrances into pool (one must be performed without assistance)
– Methods for access pools include: pool lifts, transfer steps, transfer tiers, pool stairs, sloped entry, zero-depth entry, wet ramp, dry ramp, transfer wall, and movable floors
– Uncluttered pool decks
– Use surface material with different texture on pool deck several feet away from the waters edge (visually impaired may detect their relationship to pools edge by use of their feet)
– Bright light, tap-stick, or sprinkler system to alert swimmers when approaching the pools edge (visually impaired)
– Allow starting position from pool’s edge as an alternative to starting blocks (physical disabilities)

Ramp and Hall Specifications
– Ramp regulations are a 1:16 or 1:20 slope ratio. This means for every one foot of elevation there must be a 16 or 20 foot ramp with a minimum ramp width 42in. Ramp cannot exceed 30ft without rest areas and landings must be at least 60in. Handrail must be on both sides and continuous the length of the ramp. Handrail diameter must be 1-½ in, above 34 to 38 inches from ramp surface, and the beginning/ending of the ramp must have a 12in catch. These are the specifications for building ramps. If a smaller outside ramp is needed to go over a ditch, down a hill, or rocky area these specifications do not apply. However, efforts should be made to consider slop and rest areas if needed.
– Halls should be wide enough for one wheel chair at 36 inches
– If it is a two-person hallway, then it should be at least 60 inches wide to allow two wheelchairs to pass.
– Hall space must also be 84 inches when turning a corner into another hallway

Fields & Playgrounds
– If children are using the path then the surface may need to be smoother accounting for differences in upper body strength
– Several pieces of equipment must be available from ground level and 50% of the playground accessible by wheelchair. Barriers need to be removed so wheelchairs can enter/exit the area and the surface allowing wheelchairs to move freely.
– Shade should be provided for all students with disabilities. Consider especially multiple disabilities or neuromuscular disabilities (Cerebral Palsy, Spinal Bifida, Spinal Injury, Muscular Dystrophy) because most students have problems regulating body temperature (to hot or to cold), problems in rapid changes in body temperature (seizures), or have extreme reaching (dizziness, fainting). Further, if the temperature is hot, make sure students drinking plenty of water.

Additional Suggestions
A. In some situations a qualified interpreter or additional staff may need requested (i.e., Special Education Director, Athletic Director). Physical educators should not hesitate to ask for support if students with disabilities need help to participate successfully.
B. Physical educators can “role play” to better understand the impact of different disabilities. For example, use a wheelchair to maneuver around the gym, bathroom, shower, locker room, fields, playgrounds, swimming pool, and paths taking note of difficult areas or areas not accessible.
C. Construction and removal of barriers does not have to be expensive. Sometimes cutting the grass extra low, constructing a short wooden ramp, or breaking a small concrete ledge is all that’s needed to allow easier access, passage, and participation.
D. Solicit input from others and the student’s family for modifications to program. Set up an advisory committee that includes adults who have disabilities for the community, social workers, other PE teachers, the school nurse, and the student’s doctor. Collaboration with others will help tremendously with new ideas and confidence that the program is moving in a positive direction. Consider visiting other established adapted PE programs and observe structural and curriculum modifications.
E. Review current programs and protocols and ask yourself whether these policies or practices are discriminatory.
F. Use in-service training to facilitate a positive and inclusive program. Request an expert in Adapted Physical Education to present in the next in-service training. School districts usually have several in-services each year for physical educators. Also, physical educators can benefit from attending in-service training for special education teachers. The more knowledge physical educators obtain, the more likely students with disabilities will have appropriate and successful access to activities.
G. Review safety considerations and emergency procedures to ensure that students with disabilities can take part safely and are warned of the inherent risks of the activity.

When the Architectural Barriers Act (1968) and American Disabilities Act (1990) were implemented the hope was that individuals with disabilities would have access to all buildings and programs. However, some 40 plus years latter (2016) many parks, playgrounds, paths and buildings are not assessable and do not provide equality in programs offered for people with disabilities. This needs to change and the change can starts with you! Every physical educator needs to fight discrimination toward people who have disabilities. We encourage you to consider the suggestions presented in this article. Your help is urgently needed to enforce the ABA and ADA Acts so that all Americas may indeed “be created equal.”


Join PHE America in Supporting SHAPE America’s 50 Million Strong by 2029 Commitment

What are you doing to support 50 Million Strong? PHE America has published many essays illustrating what 50MS is and what some teachers are doing to support it. Just type "50 Million Strong" in the Search box to get a listing. But how about YOU? What are you doing? PHE America will continue to share insights and opinions about 50MS but we can't succeed alone. As others have said, "It depends on US" to advance this vision of transforming the physical activity and health habits of the nation's 50 million students by 2029. Join the team and let us know what you are doing so we can share ideas with colleagues around the country. Success will only happen if each one of us takes responsibility for changing the activity and health habits of the students we teach. Added together that's how to reach 50 million lives!
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