CPS Investment in First Floor Access Does Not Prioritize Needs of Disabled Students


August 25, 2020 | by Bridget Hayman


Bridget Hayman

Director of Communications


(312) 640-2129

Under current plan, students, parents and teachers with disabilities won’t get access to more schools

CHICAGO – Today Access Living published its annual review of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) special education budget for FY2021, along with a supporting analysis detailing disability accessibility of school buildings throughout the city. 

The organization’s findings show that students with disabilities will be left behind by both CPS’s plan to make only the first floor of schools accessible, and its plan for distance learning because of COVID-19.

CPS appropriated $20 million for accessibility improvements under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), with a commitment of $100 million over the next five years, but because its focus is on first floor accessibility, students with mobility disabilities won’t benefit from the investment.

“Students with mobility disabilities won’t have any better access to more schools than they have right now,” said Chris Yun, Access Living’s Education Policy Analyst. “CPS must prioritize disabled students’ access to academic programs and the entire school experience, and its current plan simply doesn’t do that.” 

Last year, for the first time in almost a decade, CPS designated capital funds specifically for ADA accessibility improvement, an important step in the right direction for students and parents with disabilities.  But Access Living recommends the district prioritize making inaccessible or partially accessible schools fully accessible along with first floor accessibility features. 

“First floor accessibility might lead to increased access for community members to go to things like events, plays or polling places in schools,” said Yun, “but that shouldn’t come at the expense of students with disabilities who have been waiting far too long for greater school choice and access to the education they deserve.” 

First floor accessibility also excludes any parent or family members with disabilities by limiting their school access when educational or presentation spaces are on other floors.

In its analysis of CPS accessibility, Access Living found that more than half of CPS schools are not accessible to students with mobility disabilities, with the largest disparities on the South and West sides. In Chatham/South Shore, for example, only nine schools are accessible to students with mobility disabilities out of a total of 32 schools.

Access Living also found the CPS budget doesn’t adequately account for the funding, resources and staffing needed to support students with disabilities in making meaningful progress as designed in their Individual Education Programs during distance learning. 

With that in mind, Access Living urges CPS hire more teachers and classroom aides; prioritize in-person instruction and related services for students with disabilities who have been struggling with remote learning as staffing and safety allows; extend special education services and timelines to accommodate graduating disabled students’ needs during this extraordinary time; and use federal Covid-19 aid funds to support students with disabilities.

Access Living has six recommendations for the CPS Board of Education as it considers the budget proposal:

  1. Prioritize making schools fully accessible instead of first floor accessibility so that students with mobility disabilities can access the same academic programs as their peers without disabilities do. CPS’s current plan of improving first floor accessibility is a significant cost that provides minimal benefit, especially since there is no guarantee that it would complement future plans for full accessibility. 
  2. Share accessibility Information on the district’s school locator websites and complete accessibility ratings of all CPS schools so the students with disabilities and their families are fully aware of their school choices.
  3. Prioritize school accessibility on the South and West Sides. The severe lack of accessible schools in these areas is inequitable for disabled students in these neighborhoods who have no choice but to travel further to attend accessible schools.
  4. Allocate a separate fund for individual ADA accommodations.  A reasonable amount of funds, sufficient to address vertical access needs and separate from a budget for the ADA program (district-wide capital investment to improve overall school accessibility), should be devoted and spent to meet the needs of current or enrolling students who present accessibility needs at their schools.  
  5. Devote more ADA capital investment. CPS’s ADA improvement budget of $20 million makes up less than 3% of the total capital investment. If CPS directs funds to provide first floor access for community members, CPS should put more resources to make schools fully accessible for their students.
  6. Create a long term accessibility plan to make every school fully accessible. The Chicago Transit Authority developed and publicized a 20-year All Stations Accessible Plan that identifies and determines priorities to make every rail station accessible. CPS needs a long-term strategic plan that would make every school fully accessible to bring equity to students and their families.

“If CPS focuses the next five years on first floor accessibility, it will not move aggressively enough to ensure more schools become available to students, teachers and family members who have disabilities,” said Karen Tamley, President and CEO of Access Living. “We are glad to see funds allocated for ADA access, but we urge CPS to develop a long-term districtwide plan for full school accessibility and educational equity.”


Nationally recognized as a leading force in the disability advocacy community, Access Living challenges stereotypes, protects civil rights and champions social reform.