Making Safe Routes to School Work for Students with Disabilities

We all know the statistics, that many children today are not getting the exercise that they need. Whatever barriers are preventing children from exercising, those barriers are higher for children with disabilities.

Every child participating in the Safe Routes program experiences multiple benefits—exercise, interaction with peers, and development of navigation and safety skills, just to name a few.

For students with disabilities, those navigation and safety skills may be the key to their future mobility, according to Judy Shanley.

Shanley is the director for student engagement and mobility management for Easter Seals, and works on a national project, Project ACTION, a program that works to ensure accessible community transportation for people with disabilities.

In her work, Shanley encourages teachers, school administrators, pupil transporters, and transit officials to see the importance of SRTS for students with disabilities.

“Safe Routes to School programs are part of the transportation support system for students with disabilities,” Shanley said. “Without transportation support, students with disabilities have great difficulties transitioning to college or the job market.”

Shanley places SRTS along with school transportation (school buses) and public transportation and education as the necessary ingredients to transition students with disabilities to life after school.

“Safe Routes to School teaches all students how to navigate in their community to get somewhere—to school, in this case—safely. Those navigation and safety skills can be applied by students with disabilities to getting other places in the community safely using accessible transportation,” Shanley said.

Many educators and other professionals who work with students with disabilities, as well as family members of students with disabilities, are unaware of SRTS, Shanley said. So when she makes presentations to those groups one of her messages is always that Safe Routes to School programs can be valuable assets to students with disabilities. That message surprises some in her audience.

“I’ve had many educators come up to me after my talks and say ‘Wow! I didn’t know about that. I’m going to connect with Safe Routes,” or, “This is an interesting way to think about our Safe Routes projects,’” Shanley said. “Safe Routes can be a starting point in so many ways for students to learn about using transportation options in their community.”

There’s a flip side to Shanley’s message: many people involved in Safe Routes programs aren’t fully aware of the need to be inclusive. As the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability says in its Discover Inclusive Safe Routes to School Guidebook ( 2011), “…movements (like Safe Routes to School) often do not include students with disabilities. This is, in large part, due to a mistaken belief that by not intentionally excluding people we are inherently including them.”

Safe Routes programs, by law, must be inclusive. The legislation that created the federal SRTS program emphasizes that the purpose of the program is “to enable and encourage children, including those with disabilities, to walk and bicycle to school.”

The National Center for Safe Routes to School published a resource in 2010, “Involving Students with Disabilities in SRTS,” to help SRTS organizers include and accommodate children with disabilities in SRTS. The Discover Inclusive Safe Routes to School Guidebook is another resource available. It’s up to Safe Routes organizers at the local level to make use of these resources and to connect with knowledgeable people in their communities to create inclusive SRTS programs.

Shanley has her own advice to SRTS organizers: “Get to know the education transition coordinators in your schools and find out what you can do through your Safe Routes program to support student mobility.”

Sounds like a good place to start spreading the benefits of Safe Routes to more children, which, as The Guidebook says, “will provide them with a significant advantage as they transition from childhood into their adult lives.”

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To learn more about Project ACTION's services and resources related to accessible transportation, and to access information related to transportation to support student transition to post-school settings, visit www.projectaction.org.