Special-needs buses, especially those with wheelchair lifts, are high-risk environments for students because of the possibility of slips, trips and falls. The greatest danger areas are the stairwell and the lift platform.

At the bus stairwell, the driver and attendant must work closely as a team. The attendant is a greeter who must be outside the bus to accept the student alone or from his parents and follow closely behind that student at the stairwell. The attendant is also outside the bus ahead of the student during bus departure.

Create a safety net
The attendant creates an invisible ‘safety net’ by being physically present to catch a child from falling at the first step while boarding. Many special-needs students are challenged to walk, maintain balance, judge foot rise or fall and use the handrail effectively.

For example, children with cerebral palsy who are marginally ambulatory must constantly think about the movement of their legs, trunk and arms to safely negotiate the bus stairwell. They literally cannot walk and talk (or listen effectively) at the same time. The team should not talk with them (greetings should stop as they hit the first step to board the lift bus or when leaving the bus before they take the first step down the stairwell). These students and others may not have sufficient depth perception to judge the different levels that steps represent.

For students with disabilities, going down the bus stairwell is far more dangerous than going up. When you fall going up the stairwell you receive abrasions and contusions. When you fall going down the stairwell, you are far more likely to suffer a concussion, head injury or broken bones.

There are more ‘close calls’ on the lift bus than are ever reported. We all know to keep the stairwell clean, dry, well lighted and well supervised by both driver and attendant. But do we use reflective tape at each step rise or edge to create a high-contrast, easily visible area for stairwell use? Without reflective tape and high-contrast steps, a preventable accident is waiting to happen.

Stay focused at the lift
A wheelchair lift is a heavy piece of machinery that demands close attention. Drivers who operate the lift from outside the bus with one hand on the controls and the other hand on the wheelchair or scooter should not talk with anyone while the lift platform is in motion.

At the school loading zone, drivers should not position the lift in the down position before anyone’s ready to board the bus. A prematurely lowered platform, especially if it’s unsupervised, creates a significant walkway hazard for pedestrians, young and old. It can also allow access to the bus by unauthorized persons.

Only one person can use the lift platform at a time. That means that no one should ride up or down with the student in the wheelchair. The side handlebars on some lift platforms are there to assist the student seated in a wheelchair or scooter. They are not to be leaned on by students using walkers, canes, crutches or other mobility aids. Students using these mobility aids should have a district-provided wheelchair to safely ride on the lift.

Dr. Ray Turner is a special-needs transportation authority, expert witness and author of numerous books and newsletters. For more information, e-mail him at drturner@earthlink.net or visit www.whitebuffalopress.com.