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High Schoolers With Disabilities Struggle to Find Space in City Schools

By Amy Zimmer | December 16, 2016 12:11pm | Updated on December 19, 2016 8:18am
 Stuyvesant is one of eight high schools in Manhattan that is fully accessible to students with physical disabilities. But those students don't get priority to the elite school.
Stuyvesant is one of eight high schools in Manhattan that is fully accessible to students with physical disabilities. But those students don't get priority to the elite school.
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MANHATTAN —  Navigating the high school admissions process is challenging for anyone, but there’s an extra layer of difficulty for students with disabilities.

Parents not only have to find programs that can support their children's academic needs, they also have to navigate confusing and incomplete information about whether their students will even be able to get around inside the school if, for example, they use a wheelchair or other assistive device.

Only 56 of the city's district high schools are considered “fully accessible” and meet the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Department of Education data — less than 12 percent of the city's roughly 480 high school programs.

About 61 percent of high schools are considered “partially” accessible, meaning that people with limited mobility or in wheelchairs can access part, but not all of the building — but the city’s high school directory doesn't outline exactly what “partially” accessible means in detail at each school, according to Jaclyn Okin Barney, a lawyer who runs the grassroots group Parents for Inclusive Education, or PIE.

That includes schools where key areas like the library, science labs, auditorium or cafeteria may be inaccessible or the barrier-free door to the school is often locked. There's one school where there is a step in front of the only entrance, and other schools that have bathroom stalls that aren't wide enough for wheelchairs, Barney said.

Of the eight high schools in Manhattan that are fully accessible, there are other barriers to entry: the ultra-competitive Stuyvesant High School, which requires students take the Specialized High School Admissions Test, and the High School of Art and Design, a competitive school that makes students submit portfolios and audition.

“There are schools that are accessible in New York, but the children who need them are not able to access them,” said Rachel Pardoe, a program officer with the New York Community Trust, which recently awarded a $100,000 two-year grant for PIE’s advocacy efforts.

Accessibility conditions are so bad in city schools that the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing letter to the DOE last year about their elementary schools being woefully out of compliance with ADA regulations and denying students with disabilities the equal right to access a public education. The DOJ didn't examine high schools, where the compliance rate is even worse.

In addition, because of the complicated algorithm employed by the Department of Education for high school admissions, students who use wheelchairs or face other physical challenges don’t necessarily receive priority for admission to the accessible schools that meet their physical needs, Barney said.

Barney said it is possible for a student to list only fully-accessible schools on their high school application and not get into to a single one of them.

"Our goal in asking for students to have priority in this process is so these students do not need to go through multiple rounds of the process just because they need a barrier-free school," she said. "It is our belief that students who have barrier-free needs already have limited options and they should have some priority in getting in to those limited options."

In addition, her volunteer-run group — a network of parents, educators and advocates — is embarking on a two-year effort to create an online resource guide for families of children with physical disabilities and is calling on the DOE to change the way it assigns priority when it comes to students with physical needs.

Often, the only way to understand what the conditions are like inside the school would require visiting all of those schools — which is not possible for many parents, Barney said.

The online guide will include an accurate list of fully and partially accessible schools along with information on how families can navigate the high school admissions process and instructions on requesting physical changes to schools.

“When you consider special education needs on top of physical needs there are even fewer schools [that can support these students],” Barney said.

DOE officials said the Office of Student Enrollment works with families to identify sites that is accessible for their child and that families may request a transfer if either a student or guardian requires an accommodation for a disability, either through the department’s Family Welcome Centers or through appeals in the admissions processes.

The Department of Education is investing $100 million in the School Capital Plan for accessibility projects, and DOE’s Accessibility Committee is working to make schools more accessible and better serve students with physical disabilities, DOE officials said.

“We are working to increase the accessibility of our school buildings and ensure families have the information they need to find the right school for their child,” DOE spokesman Will Mantell said.

The department is also hiring full-time accessibility coordinators and recently created an email address (accessibility@schools.nyc.gov) to make information requests easier for parents and families, officials said.    

Giving families and their children more information to navigate the process is sorely needed, said Barbara Glassman, executive director of INCLUDEnyc.

Her nonprofit is working to help high school students with disabilities advocate for their own educational needs through family workshops, professional development for educators and working with students in high needs schools, funded through a two-year $180,000 grant from the New York Community Trust.

Before the program, which kicked off in 2015, only 3 percent of students knew about the disability-related accommodations and services available at their schools. At the end of the first year, 68 percent were familiar with the support available to them and 72 percent advocated for their academic needs, according to the Trust.

Glassman urged families to listen to their children when it came to what high schools might be a good fit.

“Students with disabilities are teenagers like other kids," she said. "They are going to have opinions and need to feel excited and comfortable.”