“People with disabilities are vulnerable because of the many barriers they face: attitudinal, physical, and financial. Addressing these barriers is within our reach…..but most important, addressing these barriers will unlock the potential of so many people with so much to contribute to the world.”
- Stephen Hawking
One of the common misconceptions people have about disability is that they often think it includes only wheelchair users, blind people, rollator users, etc., but the truth is that there are many more people experiencing some form of disability at different stages of their lives. With a similar misunderstanding, many designers think that just providing a ramp or an elevator is the only solution in creating barrier-free environments. While some other designers believe that having additional features for disabled people is an obstacle to their beautiful design. Rather, architects, planners, designers, etc. should take up this as a challenge and design spaces to meet the needs of all types of users. An architect needs to understand his/her role in society and realize that architecture is about creating spaces for the user and them to feel and experience the essence of it.
Different regions, countries have various guidelines for designing spaces for disabled people, but some common principles should be kept in mind always when planning for such environments, irrespective of the place. Some of these have been discussed below.
1. Flexibility in the Use of Space
As designers, it automatically becomes our duty to amalgamate differently-abled people into society, so that they can actively be a part of it and lead a normal life just like everyone else. However, this does not imply that the result of a designed space is chaos, as separate provisions are provided for different people, rather than combining them and finding a solution that is accessible by all. Hence, the main focus is to design ‘flexible spaces’, giving a sense of ease, comfort, and a better experience for everyone. The flexibility in design also means “Universal Design”, wherein there are no differences between people and brings everyone together.
2. Disability and Natural Landscape
Urban spaces are where most social activities and interactions take place, and therefore these should be well-thought of for the ease of use to everyone. A natural environment with the addition of special features provides a great sensory experience to the user. Public spaces can include various amenities such as setting up urban furniture without creating barriers for the disabled people, pathways should not only be wide enough to accommodate wheelchair users but have a playful element as well to make it less boring, use of ramps having a slope of not more than 8% instead of steps will provide comfort for all, installation of rods and handles at the correct heights and similar such methods.
3. Use of Signage for WayFinding
Humans deal with a variety of disabilities and a good design should consider at least the majority of these and provide the necessary facilities for their easement. Wayfinding is one essential design element that should be incorporated in all projects irrespective of the type of construction or its location. One of the most common practices to aid wayfinding is the use of colors on pedestrian paths, usually a continuous centrally running strip along the whole path. Other methods include the use of signs, artwork, or illustrations to indicate landmarks, area-specific activity, mention directions or warn about something, useful especially to differently-abled people.
4. Considerations for Built-Spaces
Providing ease of access in open and public areas will be of no use if upon entering a building, a person with a disability does not find similar amenities. Hence, built spaces should be considered with equal importance. Providing only ramps at the entry will help all kinds of people to reach a higher level with more ease. For multi-storied structures, it should be necessary to give provision of elevators, lifts, escalators along staircases. But it should also be kept in mind that staircases should be provided with separate handrails at different heights for users with disabilities. Ease of movement is not only to be considered in circulation areas but in spaces like restrooms and toilets as well. Proper guidelines must be followed to equip such spaces with all the required tools.
5. Use of Sensorial Elements
The human senses are active emotional systems that interact with the environment and the surroundings on different levels. These sensory experiences range across all human senses – touch, smell, vision, sound, and taste. These are aroused when improved features are provided within a building. Ranging from the use of textures on walls, floors, or ceilings to improving vision quality by providing adaptable fenestration elements to improve the quality of daylight entering inside a building; there are many other ways to evoke the human senses and assist people with disabilities. The use of colors in the interiors has also proved to induce different kinds of feelings in a human. For example, bright colors are mostly associated with happiness and positive feelings. Similarly, a variety of textures and materials can also be used to break the monotony of a space and provide comfort.
These common guidelines are not new to the world of designing, rather it has been prevailing for many years now. Despite this, many designers often fail to realize that the requirements of the disabled people coexist with those of the majority of the population. Architecture is an essential part of the healing process of these differently-abled humans and the creation of spaces helps create a balance to achieve the physical as well as mental well-being of everyone. Therefore, it is more like a moral obligation of all architects, planners, and designers to generate a universal design to promote flexible, uncomplicated, and unbiased use for every human being.