A December 16, 2016 report by DNAInfo.com outlined the difficulties encountered by New York City high schoolers with disabilities when looking for schools that meet their physical and academic needs. What the report didn’t cover, however, was that the problems with finding accessible schools start much earlier than high school. In fact, many elementary Gifted & Talented programs or top general education schools are not accessible to children with non-cognitive disabilities, forcing parents to choose between a school their child can navigate and one that offers academic challenges.
We spoke with several NYC parents (who wish to remain anonymous) about the challenges they faced, so that their experience might help other families.
NY School Talk (NYST): When looking for an elementary school, were there ones you had to dismiss because they weren’t accessible?
NYC Parent (NYSP): Our zoned school was not accessible. We did not apply to G&T’s because they were not accessible either. One school outside our zone was listed as accessible by the DOE, but when we toured, their elevator was at one end of school’s long building, and it was often out of service. At another school, we didn’t see any children with physical disabilities included in the general education classrooms. Instead they were enrolled in the school’s self-contained, special education classes. Inclusion was an important factor for us. We wanted our child to feel just as much a part of a school as any other. We worried any physical issues with the school could only make them more separated from their classmates.
NYST: You ended up in a school that was wheelchair-accessible. Did you think was a good academic fit for your child?
NYCP: The school was great at inclusion in their classroom, and all the kids took the elevators together. But we definitely felt we had to make a trade-off between education and accommodating physical needs. The academics at the school ended up not being very good, and they were even worse for kids with IEP’s (Individualized Education Plans required for students classified as eligible for special education services). Rather than give them extra time on tests, the teachers simply gave IEP kids easier, fill-in-the-blank tests. They would claim the kids were doing well based on these easier tests which they insisted were equivalent. We would have to repeatedly advocate for the school to not schedule physical, occupational and speech therapy during academic time. The school talks about prompting kids to be more independent when they want to cut services, but when it comes to actually encouraging independence, such as being able to go to class with all the other kids, the school is a barrier as opposed to helping. Parents should know that many of the schools listed as accessible are shortchanging students. The school may meet the checklists – has a nurse, is accessible, has PT/OT/speech, and has a culture that kids with disabilities are welcome. So the good thing is the kids won’t get bullied. The bad thing is they won’t get a good education either. The DOE might say it doesn’t have to be good, just free and appropriate. Except it’s not appropriate either. The end result is the kids are poorly prepared academically for the rigors of high school unless families supplement their education.
NYST: When searching for a high-school, did you find that all schools listed as being accessible actually met those criteria?
NYCP: It turned out not all of them were. We toured the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College. We were surprised to find out the school didn’t have an elevator, even though the school had several floors. They said an elevator was scheduled to be installed, and if it wasn’t, they could move our child’s classes to the first floor. Apparently, the Department of Education lists a school as accessible if there is one ramp entrance into the building and if one bathroom is accessible. The good news is that not all DOE schools have to be bad for kids with disabilities. Our child’s current high-school actually tries to educate IEP kids. They don’t dumb down the material and inflate grades, but instead have extra academic time to help the kids. But high school is too late to wait to start doing a good job on educating kids with disabilities.