Low Cost Physical Access Solutions for Schools

A two track ramp made of wood is installed at a building entrance. A wheelchair user uses the ramp to enter the structure.


Successfully educating children who are disabled with their nondisabled classmates for full participation in society requires accessible schools. Providing an environment that is accessible to all children reflects the belief that all students are valued and welcome.

Accessibility should not be viewed as a constraint or simply a set of rules that must be followed, but rather as social added value which, when it is an integral part of new building projects from the outset, does not mean additional costs. Investments in accessibility from the outset should be valued in both the short and long-terms. It’s important that everyone see the hard costs of accessible construction and renovations as reasonable in relation to the long term expected benefits for children, youth and adults with disabilities.

School officials and others often feel that money spent on accessibility may be unreasonable, or spent at the expense of other educational priorities. Sentiments like this reinforce the position that accessible construction must be regulated and enforced through government-imposed requirements. 

A note of caution about low cost and temporary access solutions: Like any construction, accessibility features deteriorate over time and require regular inspection and maintenance. Temporary, low cost solutions should not be considered permanent access solutions. Inexpensive access solutions are even more at risk of deterioration and may require more vigilance in monitoring for failure. Schools must assign responsibility for inspection, repair and replacement of access features to ensure that students with disabilities have safe access.

Common Temporary & Low Cost Access Solutions

1.  Paths of Travel (Sidewalks and Walkways):

If sidewalks and paths are broken, cracked or generally in disrepair, it can be difficult (sometimes impossible), for a student using a wheelchair or other mobility device to navigate to the school building. Often, sidewalks and walkways are uneven, cracked, have missing concrete, or may be made with gravel or dirt. Some sidewalks do not have curb ramps or, if they do, the ramped section may be too narrow or too steep. The ramped section may have a ledge that is difficult to navigate using a wheelchair.

A pathway that is broken, made of gravel or dirt or lacks a curb ramp is a barrier to access

Temporary Solutions:

Temporary plates (wood or thick metal sheets that are no more than ½ inch thick) can be used to cover holes or cracks and provide a more level walkway. Ramps made out of thick wood at least 36 inches wide, with a slope no more than 1” to 12”, may be used to provide temporary access over curbs or onto sidewalks.

2.  Entrances and Doors

Doorways and entrances need to be level and should not slope steeply in any one direction. Many buildings and rooms have one step at the entrance. All doorways or entrances should be at least 32 inches wide and there must be enough room for a person using a wheelchair to maneuver to open the door. For instance, there must be enough space for a person using a wheelchair to be able to grasp the door handle, and back up their chair while pulling the door open, and then exit.  Door hardware should not require tight grasping, and the height of the door threshold should not be higher than ½ inch. Any door thresholds higher than ½ inch are difficult to roll over.

Temporary Solutions:

The use of temporary ramps (heavy wood or metal) can provide access over steps or high thresholds. If the area in front of the door is not level or does not provide adequate maneuvering space, then the door may be propped open to allow the person using a wheelchair to enter the school. If one door of a double door is not wide enough, propping open both doors should provide enough space for a wheelchair user to travel through. In some circumstances, temporary levers or other adapters that do not require tight grasping, pinching, or twisting, may be installed over existing door hardware to provide independent access. Alternatively, a temporary doorbell or buzzer system may be used to alert a school employee to open the door or doors.

3.  Hallways

Hallways may have drinking fountains, coat racks, fire extinguishers, and other objects that protrude from the walls. These objects can pose hazards to people with visual disabilities, who may bump into them if they are not detectable by a sweep of a white cane.

Temporary Solutions:

Place orange traffic cones or other objects that can be touched by a cane, such as planters or portable railings, in front of or under protruding objects. That way, canes can detect hazards and barriers in the hallway, and people who are blind can move around them. Another possibility is to designate an alternate pedestrian route that does not include protruding objects.

4.  Classrooms

Classrooms may be small and have little space because they are filled with desks and chairs. Cramped classrooms make it very difficult for people who use wheelchairs or other devices to move throughout the room.

Additionally, classrooms located in multi-level buildings that are not equipped with elevators are inaccessible to students who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices.

Temporary Solutions:

Arrange desks and tables to provide an accessible path for the student to go from his or her desk to the doorway, to the teacher’s desk and any other stations in the room where all children go. There should be desks that provide at least 30 x 48 inches of clear floor space to allow a student who uses a wheelchair or other mobility device to maneuver under and turn a wheelchair to the left or right.

Make sure that books and supplies are within reach of people who are wheelchair users or people of short stature. Wheelchair users should be able to access the white or black boards.

A class located in an upper-level of a building can be relocated to a classroom that is on the ground floor level.

5.  Toilet Facilities

Accessible toilets and washrooms enable disabled students to be as independent as possible, promote health, and ensure dignity to students with disabilities. A fully wheelchair accessible washroom and toilet facility will be usable by students who use wheelchairs, and students with disabilities who walk with or without assistive devices such as crutches or canes.

There are a few temporary solutions to make existing washrooms and toilets more accessible, but truly accessible washrooms may require new construction or retrofitting existing facilities.

Toilet facility accessibility tips:

Signage.  There should be prominent signage directing people to the accessible toilet facility, whether the toilets are in the same buildings with classrooms or are standalone buildings.

Path of Travel. Standalone toilet facilities need to be connected to school buildings by a clearly defined path and the path should be wide enough for two people to pass each other, have an even surface, and be self-draining to avoid standing water, mud, and ice. A wider path also allows a guide to assist a student to the facility.

Ramp.  Provide a ramp with a rise of 1:12 feet (1:20) where needed.

Toilet stalls or rooms:

  • Provide two widened toilet cubicles with a widened door, one for females and one for males. Because squat toilets are rarely accessible, consider combining two squat stalls to make one accessible cubicle. Toilet stalls should:

    • Have a 5 foot (1.5 m) turning radius

    • A wider door (minimum 33 inches or 84 cm wide)

    • Rails for support attached either to the floor or side walls of the stall

    • Raised toilet seat

  • Provide at least one floor or wall mounted urinal at about 51 cm (20 inches) above the floor

  • The hand washing station should be about 30 inches or 80 cm from the floor

  • Install the hand towel dispenser or hand dryer within reach of a person using a wheelchair (approximately 44 inches or 111 cm)

Temporary Solutions:

  • Place a temporary ramp to washroom facilities with one or two stairs

  • Install easy to use door hardware (no knobs)

  • Install grab bars in toilet stalls

  • Lower towel holder to wheelchair height (44 inches or 111 cm)

  • Place a portable toilet seat over a squat toilet (or build a toilet bench to place over squat toilet)


Accessible School Facilities: A Resource For Planning (1998)

Ministry of Education, British Colombia, Canada

Attached and linked below

Improving Accessibility of Schools (2006)

Prepared for Ministry of Education, Sri Lanka

John Grooms for USAID

Attached and linked below

Low Cost Solutions for Making Your Home Accessible

Assistive Technology Partners


Improving Accessibility with Limited Resources (2008)

By June Isaacson Kailes and Christie MacDonald

Attached and linked below

Accessibility for the Disabled – A Design Manual for a Barrier Free Environment

Urban Management Department of the Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District

Linked below