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Universal Design of Inclusive Learning Environment

Ing.arch. Zuzana Čerešňová, PhD.


Universal Design of Inclusive Learning Environment

Education and work are the main conditions of human independence and substantially contribute to the fulfillment of life. Therefore is essential to create an environment that does not restrict an access of persons with disabilities to education and work.
The main goal of Universal Design is to create an inclusive non-discriminatory environment that is designed to help all people to fulfill basic human rights, including the right to education. One of the biggest obstacles is the existence of physical barriers in schools and campuses. When designing new buildings or renovating existing buildings, the architects are often focusing only on barrier-free entrance to the building, while another movement, use and orientation in other parts of the building remain unresolved. To ensure a consistent inclusive learning environment, it is necessary to create a barrier-free environment of the whole school facilities, not only for students but also for teachers and other staff with limited mobility and orientation. The aim is to achieve an environment that is accessible, comfortable and safe for all its users as much as possible.

The overall concept must include accessibility of outdoor spaces, parking, building entrance, sanitary facilities, classrooms, the library, the dining room and other school and campus spaces and also access to information and service counters. Within the campus and its facilities is necessary to ensure easy orientation for people with sensory disabilities through orientation and information systems (such tactile plans and models, and other multi-sensorial components). For the safety of persons with visual impairments it is also necessary to apply the principles of clear and easy identification of the different elements of the built environment. For example, glazed entrance doors must be contrasting marked and is also recommended to place the embossed tiles in front of the entrance.

New buildings must have the main entrance at the same height level as pavements without any steps. Renovated buildings should have the barrier-free entrance and the level differences can be overcome with ramp or exterior elevator. In designing the ramp is necessary to use proper slope, appropriate width, slip-resistant surface and correctly placed handles. For bigger height differences or in case of a lack of the space, a better solution is to use exterior elevator or platform, but it is not recommended to use a staircase lift installed on the staircase handrails. This staircase lift is not universally accessible to all people and has operational deficiencies (slow speed, complicated to use, or unsightly appearance). In front of the entrance door to the building is necessary to create enough space to maneuver with the wheelchair or pram.

The principles of Universal Design should be implemented also in interior spaces of the school facilities. At the entrance halls is necessary to make accessible services and counters (information, internet kiosk, cloakroom and refreshments) for all people. All information and orientation systems should be solved in multi-sensorial form, which uses combination of minimum two different sensory perceptions. The counters and kiosks should be designed to enable an access for a person on a wheelchair or small stature, therefore some part of the counters should have reduced height. If we propose in cloakroom area self storage space (shelves, racks, cabinets), they must be placed within easy reach for wheelchair users.

Hall and corridor areas of school facilities should allow easy orientation in space with secure guiding lines for people with visual impairment. Corridors should be simple and clear, so it is suitable to use orthogonal system with minimal walking distance. Adequate lighting and colour contrasting wall and floor solutions facilitate orientation in the hallways and staircases. It is appropriate to distinguish different units with colour - blocks of classrooms, dining spaces and sanitary facilities. Each room is necessary clearly to mark with label in tactile form placed at the wall next to the door, but never directly on the door because of safety reason.

Learning spaces is necessary to design accessible and comfortable for every students or teachers with limited mobility and orientation so to allow smooth movement without any collision. Auditorium must allow easy access for the students, but also for the lecturers. In the auditorium with stepped floor is required to reserve an appropriate number of places for wheelchair users. These places have to be situated on a flat floor and not to narrow escape corridors. Furnishings and interior equipments should allow the possibility for comfortable use also for wheelchair users therefore there must be a space to insert wheelchair towards a school desk, bench or a table. According to the requirements of Universal Design is necessary to create a barrier-free access for teachers (lecturers), that is why the classical elevated podium is not allowed in auditorium, so there should be a flat surface offering a convenient access to the board or screen.

Library, resource centre and reading rooms should accommodate also people with physical or sensorial disabilities or a lower stature and provide them an access to the different kind of books and multimedia. The library shelves must have reduced height and appropriate space for manoeuvering among shelves, so that a people on wheelchair were able to serve themselves. Individual reading tables and internet kiosks, especially their height and sitting space, should be designed to enable comfort access for wheelchair users. The books and resources should be accessible in multi-sensorial form for the people with visual impairment.

University pastoral centre must be design with barrier-free access to the premises of the chapel, as well as other social and club premises with the necessary sanitation facilities, which must include at least one wheelchair-accessible toilet cabin.

Inclusive environment of school facilities and sites must be solved comprehensively by the principles of Universal Design - Design for All, not only partial modifications such installing ramps or staircase lifts at the entrance to the building. All students and staff of higher education establishments and premises should have an equal opportunity to participate in educational activities, but also in social life so as not limiting by any architectural or communication barriers.

Ing. arch. Zuzana Ceresnova, PhD.

Centre of Design for All (CEDA), Faculty of Architecture, Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava

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