“It is a man’s man’s world….” Sang James Brown in the popular song he released in 1966. Coming to 2020, the world still seems to be that of, let us add an adjective, ‘a perfect man’. For years the debate has grown on the aspect that women and several other sections of the society are often ignored when cities are built around people. But when it comes to those with disabilities, many contemporary cities don’t welcome them at all. And a recent movement that stemmed among designers, in the recent years, is trying to change that.

What design considerations do architects have to make while designing for the physically challenged?
 Designing for physically challenged ©www.google.com

The spaces we pass by daily, the inevitable parts of our life, like various modes of transports, walkways, office buildings, market spaces, open parks, aren’t made to accommodate everyone.  From buses with high floors, to multi-storied buildings without enough alternative provisions for vertical transit, to narrow footpaths that cannot fit a wheelchair, this discrimination against those of special needs run throughout the layers of our world.

Equity and equality

The concept of equity comes in, when design considerations for the differently able are being discussed. When the same provisions are provided to everyone, it would be termed as equality. But that will only be fair when everybody is of equal abilities. Hence to ensure fairness among everyone in the society, it is important that equity is ensured, that is, special provisions are provided to people who are in need for them.

Designing for the physically challenged means designing for the comfort, satisfaction and safety of the said group. Having a barrier free design is one spectrum of it, which is just about providing the basic accessibility provisions. Building something for their satisfaction and enjoyment is a much more complex work.

Image- ramp in school that is both functional and a design element.

Shifting the perspective

Experience of a disabled person is vastly different from that of an average human being. Their perceptions of space and their susceptibility on other active senses are very different. An easily noted example is the difference in space and clearances required for a person using a wheelchair to that of a normal person. Hence providing wider pathways, walkways, corridors etc can make spaces accessible to them. But we often fail to understand the need of creating spaces that attract these sects of people, and speak to them.

Lifting the space from our perspective and shifting it to an alternate view will give us an understanding of the shortcomings of general buildings and public spaces with regards to their treatment of the disabled. Accommodating the opinions of the groups in the design process by ensuring their active participation in the discussions is a fruitful method of doing it.

Multi sensory- Design for the senses

A design that taps into the potential of engaging with all the human senses and not just sight, is a design that strives to be remembered. Multi- sensory designs are utilised by creators for evoking a wide array of differing emotions within the user. Tactile, olfactory and audible quality of spaces can be altered in controlled ways to get a specific outcome upon the users; and hence it is considered as a discipline of design that has immense untapped potential.

When someone develops a disability in one of their 5 senses of perception, the rest of the senses start heightening in capability. The person becomes hyper aware of his surroundings and very sensitive through the other 4 senses and this helps them to go about their life.  It is important to understand this while designing for someone with any kinds of disability; that their experiment of space can be improved by appealing to the rest of their senses.

Image- textured corridor walls for guiding students in Hazelwood School for blind.

Image- tactile paths for blind that engage both tactile and auditory senses.

New perspectives: think different, be creative.

Conventionally, designers view creating inclusive spaces as something that often throttles their creative freedom and as something they are involuntarily forced into incorporating into their designs. This makes the needs of the disabled sections to be marginalised in the development of the design.  But instead of marking these provisions as something to be added on or fitted unto the otherwise generic design, what if we start viewing it as the starting point of the design? Often as the unique and unconventional muses of poets turn out to be uniquely beautiful poems, the architectural projects that are conceptualised around innovative provisions for the special needs, turn out as marvellous designs in several instances. Dr.Jos boys, professor of architecture in the University of Melbourne had discussed this idea, putting forth the examples of projects by OMA architects- the seminal Villa in Bordeaux, completed in 1998 and Maggie’s Centre in Gartnavel, Glasgow. Both projects developed around users with disabilities, stubbornly places them at the centre of the design. The seminal villa has a central hydraulic square lift for its wheelchair bound user that completes each of the three floors when it is at that floor. The Maggie centre is a cancer- care establishment with prime focus on the ailing users. While weaving your design around the special needs, the architects often tend to come up with detached spaces that completely reverse the idea of inclusivity. If designers are truly able to go beyond the barriers, we will have the ideal solutions.

The key is in being inclusive 

Immediate solutions that often arise whenever the matters concerning space for different sections of people are being discussed, is the provision of providing a separate more functional alternative that fits each of these sections. But it is forgotten and overlooked that this method ends up segregating and eventually discriminating the said sections. Providing all inclusive social spaces is primary to lifting the stigma around different groups. Especially when it comes to people of special needs, this is important to make them more accepted within the society.


Melva Joseph is a young, passionate architecture graduate from TKM College of Engineering, Kerala. Being extremely curious and adaptable made her an extensive reader, avid traveller and a good conversationalist. She holds close the belief that the existing gap between architecture and the common man should be bridged.