Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Opening Doors


A little prodding opens doors

DEBBY ABE; debby.abe@thenewstribune.com

Published: November 18th, 2008 12:05 AM | Updated: November 18th, 2008 12:37 AM

Imagine sitting in a wheelchair, heaving open a steel door with one hand and moving your seated body across the threshhold before the door shuts.

Next, use all your might to pull yourself up a steep hallway amid a crush of teens hurrying to their next class.

That’s what 19-year-old Amy Blair faces each day as she navigates her manual wheelchair through the Franklin Pierce High School campus.

She thinks it should be easier for people using wheelchairs to get around – and she’s getting school officials to do something about it.

“I love the school,” Blair said, “but I don’t like the buildings.”

District administrators say the Midland-area high school meets minimum requirements under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The key word there is “minimum.” The law doesn’t require every entrance, door and corridor in Franklin Pierce High’s 18 buildings to be accessible – and they’re not.

Even parts of the campus that meet access rules can be unnecessarily difficult for disabled people to use, said assistant superintendent Tim Stensager.

“Are there things the district could do to make Amy’s – or anyone who has limited mobility – lives easier,” Stensager said, “so they could get to class on time and don’t have to yell down the hall to have someone help them?”

Blair, a Franklin Pierce junior, says yes. She’s among 12 students in the district, including nine at her school, who use wheelchairs.

Though she can’t read, the developmentally delayed teen has proved herself an articulate and effective advocate over the years.

When she attended Ford Middle School, the district repaired broken, uneven concrete walkways after Blair told them they were dangerous to encounter in a wheelchair.

When she entered Franklin Pierce High three years ago, she got the district to install a push-button entrance in the building that then housed the Hi Point program for special-needs students.

“We’ve always taught her you just don’t complain about a problem,” said her father, Frank Blair. “You have to offer people an opportunity to fix the problem.”

At the end of last school year, his daughter told administrators that she was still having trouble with the doors.

“Why don’t you come to the school, be in a wheelchair, and see how I do it every day?” she recalled asking Stensager.

He agreed. In September, he used a hand-operated wheelchair to follow Blair around campus for nearly two hours.

Stensager found that some heavy exterior doors closed too quickly, causing Blair and other wheelchair users to bang their hands into door frames while rushing to beat the door.

He saw how tough it is to enter the 500 Building that now houses the Hi Point program. A long exterior ramp on the side of the building leads to the wheelchair-accessible entrance. But the ramp isn’t covered, so students prefer to use the main, covered walkway leading to double doors that don’t meet disabled-access regulations. And once inside those doors, wheelchair users must wheel up a steep corridor that also doesn’t meet access codes.

Since Stensager’s wheeled tour, maintenance workers have adjusted the worst doors so they close more slowly.

Now they’re weighing whether to install a push-button door to improve the 500 Building’s covered entrance.

“It’s not that we don’t have the heart to do it,” Stensager said of making access upgrades. “The problem is we don’t have the funding … It’s the classic unfunded mandate.”

Though the federal government establishes the access standards, it doesn’t provide money to implement them, he said. In fact, older buildings are required to comply only if they go through extensive renovations.

Franklin Pierce High, for instance, had no wheelchair-accessible restrooms until the school began a major renovation in 1998, Stensager said.

While money is tight for all districts, it’s especially so in Franklin Pierce. Voters twice rejected a construction bond this year that would have, among other things, made schools more accessible.

The estimated $4,500 cost of installing another push-button entrance would have to come from a $102,410 account that’s supposed to cover maintenance at all 14 district schools for the entire school year.

Blair’s parents, Frank Blair and Carol Jones-Blair, believe the district is doing its best within budget constraints.

“We love this district,” Frank Blair said. “They’ve been at the forefront of special education in the area.”

If anything, they and district officials hope Amy Blair’s efforts will raise awareness about the needs of people with limited mobility, whether a permanent wheelchair user or a football player with a broken leg.

Blair is asking friends and acquaintances to bake cookies for a fundraiser to improve school access.

“There are more doors that are a pain in the patooty,” she said. “I’m trying to get most of these doors done so kids don’t have to worry about getting their hands smashed.”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694

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