Graduation Ceremony Accessible to Individuals with Physical Disabilities?

Graduation is Coming – Is Your School’s Graduation Ceremony Accessible to Individuals with Physical Disabilities?

All schools know that their programs must be accessible, but problems often are exposed during graduation season.  Sometimes schools do not think through how students in wheelchairs will be able to receive their diplomas.  Is the path that students and guests take from the parking lot to the graduation ceremony accessible?  Are the bathrooms accessible?   Is the route from student seating to the podium/stage where diplomas are awarded accessible?  Is there accessible seating for guests?

Some of these issues were raised in an OCR case (Complaint Number 01-11-1248) involving a spring 2011 high school graduation.  In this case, a student in a wheelchair filed a complaint with OCR, alleging that his school did not provide an accessible graduation ceremony.  OCR investigated the following:  1) the parking available for the graduation; 2) the accessibility of the route from the parking to the graduation ceremony; 3) the accessibility of bathrooms; and 4) the temporary path created by the District for the complainant to reach the graduation seating area and the podium.

OCR found problems with the following:

  • Parking: Not all of the parking indicated by the District as accessible was actually accessible because the signage was not at the minimum required height.
  • Route to the graduation ceremony:  The route to the graduation ceremony was not accessible.  The exterior door did not have a required automatic door opener, and the opening force of several interior doors was too high.  In addition, although the school provided special seating for attendees in wheelchairs to watch the ceremony, the route to get to this seating was not accessible as individuals needed to travel over a small section of grass.  Under the ADAAG standards, grass is not accessible because it is not stable, firm and slip resistant.
  • Bathrooms:  A bathroom along the route to the ceremony was not accessible because the opening force of the door was too high.
  • Pathway for complainant:  OCR found that the pathway created by the District for the complainant was not accessible.  Although the District created a pathway out of laminate for the complainant to use to go to the graduation seating area and to the podium where diplomas were announced without having to travel on grass, the pathway did not provide the required 60-inch diameter turning space, and did not meet the accessibility standards for stability and firmness.

Lessons Learned

This case illustrates several important points regarding graduation accessibility:

  • The pathway to the graduation site must be accessible:   Schools must assess many issues when determining whether the route to the graduation site is accessible.  Some questions that schools must assess include whether door pressures are appropriate, whether elevators are accessible, and whether appropriate turning space is provided.
  • Bathrooms must be accessible:  Clearly schools always must have accessible bathrooms.  With graduation coming up, carefully assess school bathrooms, particularly those close to the graduation ceremony, to make sure that they meet accessibility standards.
  • The ceremony itself must be accessible:  Is the path from the seating to the podium/stage where diplomas are awarded accessible?
  • Ensure that the ceremony is accessible for guests:  Schools have many guests on campus during graduation.  Schools must ensure that pathways, bathrooms, seating, etc. are accessible for guests as well as for graduating students.
  • Make sure that schools understand what standards apply:  In the above case, given the date that the school and temporary pathway were built, the District chose, and was permitted, to follow the ADAAG standards.  Different standards will apply depending on when a facility/pathway was built.

Remember, a complaint that begins with one allegation regarding a stage or podium not being accessible for a graduate, might lead to a much larger investigation!