Clear Spring school makes life easier for disabled

February 02, 1997


Staff Writer

CLEAR SPRINGS - No door was quite wide enough, but Sondra Funk didn't let that keep her from getting to her daughter's sixth-grade classroom at Clear Spring Middle School.

"I was determined to come up and see my daughter's teacher," said Funk, 36, who had to scrape the sides of her wheelchair to squeeze into the building four years ago.

Once inside, she remembers having to ask Patricia, now 15, to push the wheelchair up the school's steep ramps.

Returning to the same classroom this year to visit her son Joshua's teacher, Funk was able to use a new door designed to accommodate wheelchair users.


But she still would have needed help on the ramps if she hadn't exchanged her wheelchair for an electric cart.

Her son's school - like most Washington County public schools - meets some but not all of the mandates of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, said Dennis McGee, the school system's director of facilities management.

It would cost nearly $6 million to fully comply with the federal ADA law in every school, McGee said.

Since 1991, school officials have been moving toward full compliance, following a plan for improvements that has been altered every year to meet the needs of specific students or their family members, he said.

"We've done something almost everywhere," McGee said. "We've concentrated on getting into the buildings. We've done the proper curb cuts and doors. You can get into all the buildings."

ADA improvements go beyond widening doors and putting in curb cuts, McGee said.

At some schools, fire alarms now give visual warnings as well as auditory ones Some schools have handicapped-accessible hardware instead of doorknobs, or have added elevators or stairway lifts.

Projects often are more complex than they seem, McGee said.

For example, altering restrooms to meet ADA standards generally involves major remodeling, including widening bathroom stalls and changing the heights of the toilet, sink and soap dish, he said.

Any new school construction complies with the guidelines, McGee said. Paramount and Eastern elementaries and North Hagerstown High were designed to meet the latest codes.

Major renovation projects at Boonsboro and Pleasant Valley elementaries and Career Studies Center included work to bring those schools into compliance, he said.

Smithsburg and Lincolnshire elementaries will also be in compliance when their renovation projects are finished, he said.

Around $200,000 is budgeted annually for ADA work. The projects are usually completed over the summer, McGee said.

Williamsport, Boonsboro and Smithsburg high schools are now up to code, he said.

Several projects - including adding the wide doorway at Clear Spring Middle School - were needed to meet special needs this year, he said.

School officials in the past year also replaced the horn on a fire alarm with a voice module for a student with epilepsy, modified walks, doors and a bathroom for a student with no legs, and purchased close-captioned televisions for five hearing-impaired students, he said.

Considering the cost of bringing all of the school system's buildings into compliance, the Washington County Board of Education isn't doing badly, said Peggy Martin, a local advocate for people with disabilities and a national ADA trainer.

But Martin said it's important that everyone in the school system be aware of what "fully accessible" really means, because many people mistakenly believe providing handicapped parking, a curb cut or ramp and widened doorway fulfills the obligation.

"It starts at the outside of the building and works its way through," said Martin, who was hired to assess the school system's buildings for accessibility at the time the improvement plan was being formulated. "You have to treat every person with a disability the way you treat every person without a disability."

It really comes down to a shift in attitude, something that can't be legislated, she said.

However, education can help, said Martin, who said she thinks all school system employees should receive ADA training.

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