Friday, April 10, 2009

Pools-- not just for athletes

Recently, our school district began the process of rehabilitating swimming pools that had fallen out of use. I asked the school board member who made the report what provisions were being made for accessibility. She did not know at the time.

The board, she reported, wanted to fix the pools for kids who play "water polo" and other water sports.

But... I thought, kids with disabilities use pools for adaptive aquatics. It's not like we have to build a pool for them but since we have pools that are getting a major overhaul, could we not be thinking of letting special ed kids use them? 

Thinking about compliance is not the same as thinking inclusively. Here is a compare and contrast: 
  • Inclusive: "wow, wouldn't it be great to have an aquatics program that included a full spectrum of water sports from athletics like water polo and competitive swimming to Physical Education like water aerobics, recreational swimming and adaptive aquatics?" 
  • Compliant: "Well, we are getting the pools fixed for the water polo team, I guess we better make sure we comply with ADA even though we will hardly ever have a kid with a disability use it. Damn, that is a lot of extra expense."
The logical consequence of inaccessibility is a kind of ghettoization of people with disabilities. As a family we have learned that, if facilities exist at all, our daughter has "special places" that she can go (special often means "especially appealing" but here means "limited, isolated and hard to find") - usually a park in a system, or a school in a district or an entrance around the side or a restroom far away from the main bathroom. 

Because we do not value kids with disabilities (as much, say, as we value athletes) we don't think of a one time expense to make something accessible, instead, we unthinkingly spend huge sums every year to work around inaccessibility or fix things that should have been done better in the first place. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has moved this country toward but not to universal design. Universal Design is the result of inclusive thinking, not compliance. Our board member, whom I really do respect and value for her service, assured me that the new pool construction will comply with ADA. This is minimally reassuring. Because the district has not thinking about including students with disabilities but about minimum requirements. 

Here is an example of the impact of this kind of thinking. Our district (under a consent decree, mind you) put in new, more accessible play structures (YAY!). Then put these  on wood chips instead of mats. When families with children with disabilities pointed out that children with mobility disabilities could now not reach the new accessible structures (OOPS), the district responded that it was too expensive to fix. Parties then went back to court, the district lost and now has to rip out the structures and put in mats. Granted it would have been easier (and cheaper) to do it right the first time, but... they were thinking minimum compliance, not inclusion. 

Why? Why spend all this money for a few kids with special needs? 

Uhm, how big IS that water polo team anyway?