Accessibility—Building the Right Ramp

Lisa Krenz Reaching Every Child Leave a Comment

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Have you ever been pushing a baby stroller or rolling a suitcase along behind you and been so relieved to come upon the curb cut that allows yourself to cruise right past the big bump from the sidewalk to the street? Or had your arms full of bags only to come to a heavy door with a door knob that you can’t turn—and then you push the “automatic door” square button on the wall and, voila!, the door opens. I love those!

Both of these items have become ubiquitous examples of how the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 has changed the landscape of our public spaces by making accessibility for people with physical disabilities a top priority. What we’ve learned from making architectural accessibility so commonplace is that everyone benefits from these changes, not just people with physical disabilities.

The same is true in the classroom. When we implement changes to make learning more accessible to students with special needs, we make learning more accessible to all students. What we’ve also learned is that it’s about more than just building the same ramp for every set of stairs.

When the paralyzed man couldn’t get into the house to be near Jesus because of the crowd, his friends were so bold as to remove the roof and lower the man into the building (Mark 2:4). It makes our automatic doors and ramps look like minor adjustments in comparison. The friends didn’t say, “Hmm, the door is blocked, so I guess we’ll skip it.” They were determined to gain access to Jesus.

Accessibility in the classroom is about having access to the curriculum. What does that mean when it comes to learning? What’s the lesson plan equivalent of removing the barrier of steps by replacing them with a ramp? Just like making each different building accessible, making each lesson accessible might take a little different approach. Do you need a big long ramp or an elevator? Does the ramp need to bend and turn so that it doesn’t get too steep or is it just a little ramp to get over one step?

The first question to ask yourself is not about the ramp, but about the steps. What is the barrier keeping the child from learning the content? Is it the reading? Is it the language? Is it the lack of prior knowledge needed to complete the tasks? Is it the output required of the student? The list could go on and could change depending on the student and the task.

Each barrier requires a different metaphorical ramp. If we try to build the same ramp into each lesson, we waste our time and energy as well as our students’. Not to mention the frustration that accumulates for everyone involved.

Example: a child can’t learn his or her multiplication tables so can’t move on to learn the process of long division. The teacher gives the student a calculator (the math ramp for this barrier) to make calculations while learning the process of long division. It would be ridiculous to provide a child with a calculator for Social Studies class if the barrier to the content in that class was the reading required to gain the chapter content. The calculator was the right ramp to make the math lesson accessible. It was a useless ramp to make the Social Studies content accessible. So too, providing an audiobook (the reading ramp for the Social Studies barrier) would be useless to replace the calculator in math class.

Just like making a building accessible, in some cases you might be able to use the same tool over and over to make your lessons accessible. Educators call these accommodations. There are some we use all the time:

  •             Scribes to write answers for students
  •             Audiobooks
  •             Calculators
  •             Text-to-talk or talk-to-text software
  •             Reduced number of items (math problems, spelling words, etc.)
  •             Extra time on tests
  •             Readers to read texts and tests to students
  •             Material chunked into smaller pieces
  •             Large print
  •             Preferential seating
  •             Color coding of keywords or directions

These are like the basic ramp that fits over the average set of steps up to a house. These work most of the time.

Sometimes we might also use technology to overcome barriers. Perhaps these are like the motorized lift we install over the steps from one floor to another on the inside of a building. Computers can make writing and responding easier. An iPad or tablet can be used to record the lecture so the student can go back and relisten and identify areas that need relearning. Touch-screen technology can make communication much easier for students who have speaking difficulties.

The man who was paralyzed wanted to see Jesus but couldn’t get into the house. I imagine his friends assessed the situation to consider the best way to make that happen. I suppose they could have gotten a chariot and barreled through the people and the walls, but what a mess that would have made. When we consider how to get our students in the room of learning, we need to consider what mode is best for each student’s situation. We don’t need to barrel through the people and the walls with a chariot each time. That doesn’t mean we might not need to do some heavy lifting, though, to get the guy over the wall.

Once we’ve provided a ramp over the barrier for the student who initially needed it, then we might turn and notice that half the class took the ramp up to the learning situation and seemed to be faring much better too, while others took the steps and made it in good time. We know that one size doesn’t fit all, but just a few sizes might be enough to cover the whole classroom.

Next time one of your students seems to be having a hard time getting up the steps to learning, identify the barrier and think about how you can build the right ramp to make your content accessible to all your students.

Photo via Ryan Tauss via


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About the Author

Lisa Krenz

Lisa Krenz is an editor at Concordia Publishing House. She has almost thirty years of experience in Lutheran schools as a special education teacher, consultant, and parent. Even though it’s taken many forms, reaching every child with the Gospel has been her passion from the beginning. She lives with her husband, Stephen, and two teen-age children, Joel and Anna, in Hoffman, Illinois, where her husband is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and School. You can read her latest posts here.

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