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Planning and Designing for Students with Disabilities 
 

Section 504 and IDEA contain two concepts that affect the planning and design of facilities used by students with disabilities. The first concept—appropriate education—requires that schools provide all students receiving special education services with an individualized education program (IEP). The IEP specifies the levels of performance, goals, and educational services to be provided and the extent to which students will participate in general education programs. Appropriate education has no statutory or regulatory definition and is, therefore, decided on a case-by-case basis. Court decisions and other rulings suggest a two-part analysis can be made to determine appropriateness: Were the procedural requirements set forth in IDEA met, and did the IEP benefit the student? 

The second concept—least restrictive environment—requires students with disabilities to be placed where they can obtain the best education at the least distance from mainstream education programs. To the maximum extent possible, they must be educated with nondisabled students. Students with disabilities who are not initially placed in the public school district or in a general education public school should be integrated into the appropriate public school as soon as possible. 

 

The following planning and designing principles should be considered when building or renovating school facilities. 

Provide versatile classroom spaces. Classrooms that provide a variety of choices in the physical environment are preferable for all educational programs but are indispensable for meeting the wide range of educational requirements for students with disabilities and for helping them become successful learners. 

For example, students with attention deficit disorders and emotional disabilities often require greater physical and acoustical separation between activities to reduce distractions, making single-space classrooms inadequate for their needs. A more appropriate arrangement consists of a large common classroom area, an alcove off the classroom, and a small room adjacent to the classroom that is acoustically isolated but visible from the common classroom area. Varied ceiling heights can further define separations and help control sound from one space into another. An alcove adjacent to a classroom, for example, could have a different ceiling height than the main space. 

Modular furniture can also provide versatility. Student worktables that can be combined or separated to support a variety of activities such as individual work, small group projects, and full class discussions are particularly useful. Data outlets should be located throughout instructional spaces, not clustered. This arrangement provides maximum flexibility for using instructional technology. 

Versatility should not be confused with flexibility, which, while good in concept, often results in generic, single-space classrooms with uniform ceiling heights, lighting, and acoustics. While such "flexible" spaces may accommodate many functions, they do not serve any one function well. Versatility, on the other hand, makes a commitment to providing greater variety in the classroom's physical environment and, in practice, provides the most flexibility for both teaching and learning. 

Use universal design. In schools, universal design means accommodating, to the maximum extent possible, people with temporary or permanent changes in mobility, agility, and perceptual acuity. With the increase in both the number and severity of students with disabilities, universal design becomes an important design principle for school architecture. 

Design requirements for people with disabilities are often the same as for people without disabilities. During the design and construction process, however, requirements can be compromised by economic constraints, aesthetic considerations, and other forces. The average person may be able to adapt...
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