Designing Schools with Accessibility in Mind

By Jim McGarry | Originally published in the Back-to-School 2019 issue of AC&E.

The Education Market Association (EDmarket) has over 102 years of collaborating with educators and suppliers working to make sure students have access to the best possible education whether the focus is on facilities or content. Looking forward, there are many exciting developments that are making student accessibility easier than ever before. As I travel around the country and tour new schools with the American Institute of Architects, Committee on Architecture for Education, I see new designs being implemented that are creating groundbreaking change. Several key factors are playing into this dynamic.

One of the first drivers of this change is the increased inclusion of stakeholders in the design process. Not too long ago the design of a school was perceived to be fairly simple. The number of students and subjects dictated the number of standard classrooms required which were all uniformly equipped with a teacher desk at the front and rows of static desks for students. There tended to be a center hallway with classrooms on either side where students went back and forth and were lectured to by their teachers. This factory model for education worked well for many years. But times have changed, and the skills student need to succeed in the 21st Century economy are much different.

Access to information is now ubiquitous. Students need to be taught critical thinking, collaboration, design thinking, presentation skills, and to work in diverse teams respecting the ideas of all involved. These new skills are demanding that new voices are heard in the design process.

When a school is built or renovated it is now common to not only have the school board, superintendent and facilities staff involved, but sitting at the table with the architects and designers are the head of curriculum, chief technology officer, occupational therapists, parents, students and teachers all sharing knowledge as to how to best accommodate the pedagogy, technology, and new learning styles that promote 21st Century skills.

Designing with pedagogy in mind has dramatically changed accessibility. When learning can take place everywhere and the space needs to accommodate interaction, cooperation, prototyping and presentation, the old classroom becomes obsolete.

This change has been taking place in phases. Some of the first and most simple ways explored how to increase access to spaces to enable these skillsets is flexible furniture. Most new furniture is now light and on casters allowing the easy reconfiguration of space for different types of activities in the same room. Tables and chairs can be arranged in rows for tests and solitary work, grouped together for team-based activities and pushed out of the way for presentation or creative space. This flexibility enables the teachers and students the opportunity to arrange the classroom to support the type of learning dictated by the lesson and is only limited by the imagination.

Technology is playing a huge roll in the new environments both in terms of flexible space and the ability for students to move around. Mobile tools including cell phones, tablets and e-readers have become a crucial component of the learning process. The ability to view a lecture via Skype or Face Time with students across the country or world are transforming education and making education more accessible to students of differing abilities. New types of collaborative spaces are being created that encourage students to cooperate on projects and solve problems together. Since learning is no longer tethered to the classroom, schools are using hallways, libraries, cafeterias, outdoor spaces, meeting rooms and designated lounges to both allow and encourage students to practice and utilize the new skills necessary for the jobs of the future.

The new flexibility combined with movable height furniture and lounge type meeting spaces has the direct impact of increasing accessibility for students with different levels of physical ability. These new education spaces make it much easier to accommodate students with disabilities and are creating a much more inclusive learning environment for all.

An acknowledged challenge is equity as investments are made to upgrade our learning infrastructure. Most of the schools currently in use in the U.S. were built in the 50s and 60s. EDmarket is working with the 21st Century School Fund and the [Re]Build America’s School Infrastructure Coalition (BASIC) to help increase the Federal funding for underserved populations especially in any national infrastructure bill.

It is important that when a school is being built or renovated that the key stakeholders have access to the best thinking during the planning process to create an environment that not only accommodates todays changing needs but will be flexible enough to change over the next 50 years to serve the community around it.

Attending the EDspaces Conference is one of the best ways for decision makers to experience firsthand conceptual classroom space, learn from important thought leaders, talk to creative manufacturers, and tour recently built environments to hear lessons learned especially if they are new to the responsibility for designing learning spaces. This year it will be held in Milwaukee, WI, October 23-25.


EDmarket is very excited for the future of education and the ability for the intersection of pedagogy, space and technology to produce students of all abilities who are prepared to succeed in the future. The creativity displayed in many of the new schools being built is amazing, and we are just getting started. There are over 5,000 schools being built or renovated in the next few years alone. Let’s make sure our students get the facilities they are need and deserve.


The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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