The Independent School Mindset on Physical Disabilities Is Still Behind the Times, Experts Say

Independent K-12 schools have been required by law to open their doors to people with physical disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs, for nearly 30 years.

[Above: Harper Oates participates in Field Day activities at Dexter Southfield.]

Though they provide physical accommodations for students with disabilities, some schools struggle to overcome a “mindset” that prevents them from even considering enrolling such students, says Tom Glassberg, a Jackson Hole, Wyoming, philanthropist whose foundation helps cover tuition at independent schools for applicants with physical challenges. From 2001 through mid-2019, Antonio’s foundation has issued 219 grants for students at 68 schools in 28 states.

“In all the schools we’ve worked with, we’ve never had a case where there was anything physically lacking with the school that meant our grantee couldn’t thrive there, like not having wheelchair ramps,” Glassberg says. 

Still, he says some schools initially question whether a physically challenged student could succeed.  “I tell them, for example, ‘Hey, the student we’re describing here participates in Paralympic competitions and is a potential International Paralympic competitor. Of course, you can accommodate him.’”

Park School, an independent pre-K-12 school in Brookline, Massachusetts, found itself facing a federal lawsuit in 2016 after rejecting a prospective 4-year-old quadriplegic pupil, despite having a physically accessible campus. Because school officials quickly denied the child’s application without investigating whether they could accommodate her, the U.S. Attorney’s Office found the school violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. 

Dawn Oates was stunned when the school turned down her daughter, Harper. Because the child’s twin siblings were already enrolled at Park and Oates’ husband is an alumnus, the family was familiar with the school’s academic standards and programming. Harper had tested above age level intellectually, and her parents had hired an aide to assist the child at school.

“I had brought Harper to the school many times,” Oates says. “I knew she could get to class and that they had accessible bathrooms, et cetera.”

Oates says the school raised seemingly minor objections, such as, “How will she participate in the song, ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes?’”

In a statement to the Boston Globe at the time, Park School said, “Harper required additional accommodations that would have fundamentally altered our educational model.”

Harper Oates
Harper Oates

Harper, now 7, successfully completed pre-K through first grade at Dexter Southfield, a different independent K-12 school in Brookline. Julie Powers, Dexter Southfield’s director of communications, says Harper is thriving and that feedback from teachers and other families has been positive. 

Dexter Southfield made some physical accommodations. “We widened some pathways in a wooded outdoor play area, added a device to help Harper use the swimming pool and installed a wheelchair lift on the auditorium stage,” Powers says. “Public speaking is a really big part of our program here and we want Harper to be able to experience it exactly as other students do, so that means center stage. We made sure she could access it.”

Athletics are also important at Dexter Southfield. Harper joins in field races, powering her wheelchair by herself. The chair has an attachable “soccer grille.” Harper joins her classmates on the school’s skating rink by using an adapted “sit ski.”

 “Next year, when she plays hockey, she’ll use her elbow to operate a hockey stick that’s attached to her sled.” Oates says. “She can participate.”

Independent schools can be a good option for students with physical disabilities if the faculty already embraces innovative teaching methods, says Emma Northey, deputy head of British International School in Boston.

“A curriculum, at the end of the day, is only a toolkit to facilitate learning,” Northey says. “The teachers are only the vehicles. Our teachers are trained to teach to the student … and take away barriers and put support where it’s needed. That’s part and parcel of teaching.” 

Glassberg says many families see another advantage to independent schools: an escape from the bullying experienced by physically challenged students in public schools. 

Dorothy Swicord, special assistant to the head of John Burroughs School in St. Louis, says independent schools are the winners for accepting students with physical needs. Burroughs has a visually impaired sophomore, a junior who is deaf, a ninth-grader with partial paralysis and an incoming seventh-grader with cerebral palsy.  “Our student body is so enriched by them,” Swicord says. “To be around people who are differently abled helps all of us grow and become better people.”

Independent schools seeking to improve physical accessibility can receive both tax credits and tax deductions.

IRS code Section 44 allows a yearly tax credit for 50 percent of expenses, up to $5,000, for “eligible access expenditures.” This credit can help pay for changes to architectural, communication, and transportation barriers, as well as fund readers, taped texts, and other methods to make services more accessible to people with visual impairments, along with interpreters and devices to make services accessible for the hearing impaired. 

IRS code Section 190 allows a tax deduction of up to $15,000 per year for “qualified architectural and transportation barrier removal expenses.”

Kristi Avalos, who founded Dallas-based consulting firm Accessology Inc. in 1990, says schools are sometimes not informed about the accommodations they need to provide.

“One of the biggest myths out there is that independent schools don’t have to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. That’s absolutely not true,” Avalos says. “Every private school is a Title III entity [under the ADA], just the same as Walmart. Anything built since January 26, 1992 should be fully accessible. Everything built prior to that must be brought into compliance in five main areas.”

Avalos warns that accessibility issues are becoming more litigious. 

“In 2018, for the very first time, the number of national ADA lawsuits, just for Title III entities, which private schools fall under, went over 10,000,” she says.  “If you look at the statistics for ADA lawsuits, every landmark year you see a huge increase in access-related litigation. Next year is the 30th anniversary of ADA, so that will happen in 2020.”

Kay Nolan is a contributing writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the fall 2019 issue.