Multiple Hamilton County schools are not accessible to the disabled
A federal mandate made more than 20 years ago says all government facilities have to be accessible to the disabled. But several schools in Hamilton County are not.
“All of those schools aren’t ADA (American Disabilities Act) compliant,” said Dr. Lee McDade, assistant superintendent of Hamilton County Schools. “I know all buildings aren’t compliant.”
There are a total of 78 schools in Hamilton County. But a review of how many of these schools do not meet federal guidelines could not be conducted. Gary Waters, assistant superintendent of auxillary services for Hamilton County Schools, did not return repeated calls.
An administrator for the Southeast ADA Center in Atlanta, Ga., however, said there is no doubt a plan should have been put in place 20 years ago—and carried out.
“They have a requirement for program access,” said Rebecca Williams, information specialist, training and technical assistance coordinator for the Southeast ADA Center.
A mandate in 1992 required all government facilities—federal, state and local—to have a transition plan in place on how to make their facilities handicapped accessible, she said. The federal mandate called for all facilities to be accessible by 1995.
McDade said the federal guidelines call for all new facilities being built to be handicapped accessible. But a review of the federal guidelines shows that even old buildings should be accessible as well.
“You can’t replace every school at once,” McDade said.
And he said it is virtually impossible to retrofit all of the schools currently not ADA compliant, noting that the average age of schools in Hamilton County is 42 years.
The Hamilton County Department of Education and the Hamilton County Commission do work together to fund school construction. Every few years as the county pays off bonds, it then seeks new ones to help pay for school construction. McDade said all new schools do follow federal guidelines.
Retrofitting the older schools in the county would be extremely expensive, he said. And it’s a money issue that can’t be addressed overnight.
“It would cost millions and millions of dollars,” McDade said.
But the fact remains, that unless the county school system enjoys some type of waiver, it could leave itself open to a court case.
Williams said there is no “ADA police” checking schools to see if they are compliant. But she said there are certainly steps in place for the public.
“It’s all complaint- or lawsuit-driven,” she said.
A complaint could be filed with the Department of Justice, which could then do a survey on the building complained about, and perhaps take the school system to court if it is found the building is not ADA accessible. Or a lawsuit from a concerned citizen could be filed in civil court.
Either way, it could mean court time, taxpayer money spent in court and then more taxpayer money spent trying to get an old building into compliance.
But McDade said the school system is not leaving disabled children to fend for themselves. If there was a situation where a child could not access a school, there would be alternatives.
“We’d provide that child with an ADA-compliant school,” he said.