Advocates for disabled win seat at the table

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There’s one area of capital planning where school officials have drawn nothing but praise: making schools more accessible to people with disabilities. But it didn’t start out that way.

Last year, the administration created the Accessibility Resources Group, an advisory committee that includes parent activists and advocates for people with disabilities The committee met almost every week in October and November.

“They really listened to us,” says Darlene Pearlstein, a committee member who is active in the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, a frequent administration critic. “The process they applied was very good.”

At the outset, committee members told staff that their main objective was to get consensus on a set of criteria for choosing projects and that then they’d let the chips fall where they may.

The committee decided to give first priority to schools that serve the greatest numbers of disabled students. Once those schools were identified, they agreed, additional schools would be chosen to assure that every neighborhood would have an accessible school nearby.

The result is a $30 million plan that identifies 190 schools for work.

“It was a model that really worked well,” says Pearlstein. “We all had different backgrounds, different points of view, and we came up with a plan that everybody felt comfortable with.”

But it took pressure to get there, says Rodney Estvan, educational policy specialist for Access Living of Chicago, a disability-rights group.

The board’s 1996 Capital Improvement Plan set aside no money for making schools more accessible. At a hearing in January last year, Estvan says he had “a nasty interaction” with Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas.

“I got mad,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Paul, are you trying to say you don’t have any money for accessibility, when you have half a million dollars for lockers at Lane Tech?'”

Vallas got mad back. Lockers, he said, are “a security issue.”

After that, Estvan started calling lawyers. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed by Congress in 1990 requires government bodies to start improving access to any building that undergoes a major renovation. But because the law is relatively new, Estvan points out, there are some gray areas: “What’s a major renovation? Are windows a major renovation?”

The suit never materialized, although Estvan says some lawyers were interested. “This is cutting-edge law,” he notes.

While Estvan was calling attorneys, the School Board’s lawyers were settling an earlier ADA complaint. In February, the board agreed to spend $6.5 million to make magnet schools accessible. “Things really opened up for us after that,” says Estvan.

Access Living started meeting with Operations Chief Ben Reyes, and things opened up even more when the advocates showed they had done their homework.

The group had compared the board’s cost estimates with those of contractors schools had consulted. “Once the people at the board saw that we could say, ‘We think [your] figure is an overestimate for this building—but not for that building,’ then Ben Reyes became very receptive,” says Estvan.

Estvan thinks that Access has one other advantage in lobbying the board to make decision making a public process: Its constituents are committed to a citywide solution, not just to getting work done at their own schools. “I go to a lot of the hearings over capital issues: It’s everybody for their own little building,” he says. “With us, it’s not that way. Parents will come back and say, ‘This has made my kid’s life different, and you need to do this for other kids.’ You never see that with the leaky roofs.”

At public hearings on the board’s 1997 revision of its Capital Improvement Plan, Estvan and colleagues from Access Living showed up to thank the board for progress made to date and to push for more.

“We give them a lot of credit,” he says. “If they do 190 schools, it’ll really be a milestone.”