Building Blueprints (Facilities in Focus)

Some Challenges and Solutions

Accomodating for special needs learningBy this time, most everyone knows what ADA stands for — Americans with Disabilities Act. It has been around for some time now and actively enforced. Whenever we are designing a new facility or renovating an existing one, it is simply second nature for us, as architects, to design for full accessibility with respect to general access to the facility and its spaces, as well as the various code requirements for maneuvering through spaces.

Something that we all need to keep in mind beyond the initial perception of a disabled user of the facility, such as a student or parent in a wheelchair or on crutches, is that are the many types of disabilities, and more specifically, an increasing number of special needs students with a wide spectrum of disabilities or needs that should and must be accommodated. This spectrum ranges from visually and hearing impaired, to mild or severe autism, to downs syndrome and dwarfism, to physically disabled or wheelchair bound students.

furniture and visual elements for special needs learningIn looking at how to accommodate all of these various issues, we must consider them from both a broad or general perspective, and then on a more individual-student-needs basis. Some of the bigger more broad challenges that special needs students face on a regular basis in facilities, especially existing older facilities, are those of dealing with level changes, wayfinding and basic access into spaces. We address those by making sure that the doorways are wide enough to accommodate the students, and that multilevel buildings have elevators or ramps to facilitate the student’s movement through the building.

Lynn Reilley, the director of Special Education for Sycamore School District 427 in Sycamore, Ill., says the challenges, “vary quite a bit based on student and grade level.”

Making accommodations for a special needs student in an elementary building can be as simple as relocating that gradelevel class to the main floor so there is no need for a student to have to change levels in a building. The bigger challenge comes when that student has moved on to the high school, where it is not as easy to relocate a class. That high school student is likely to have to change rooms for every class, and the classrooms are often at opposite ends of the building. If the science labs are all on the second floor, then we need to provide access for that special needs student to the second floor via elevator.

These broader ADA-based accessibility challenges, like building access, door widths, level changes often require modifications to the physical structure to ensure proper accommodation. Reilley shared some very specific thoughts on some other things that many people may not always think of in special education spaces:

Special needs learning and color• Color — Many special needs students have difficulty with various forms of sensory overload, so bright primary colors can cause them problems. Softer, muted colors and neutrals tend to work better spaces. Also, the use of too many colors in a single space can be a trigger.

• Textures — In special education spaces, carpet is often a better choice, as it helps to lessen sound issues, which can also be a trigger for special needs students. Often what is also needed is a “quiet room” adjacent to a special needs classroom — a place where students can deregulate and calm down when needed.

• Lighting — Lighting levels also need to be on the softer side. Fluorescent tube lighting often has a visual flicker as well as a clicking sound that can be an issue for some students. Along the same vein, moving to more energy-efficient LED light fixtures is great for operating costs, but thee LED lights may be too bright or harsh for some students. In special education spaces, a 4000K or 5000K fixture can be an issue for these students. A lower light-level fixture or some sort of dimming system will need to be installed.

• Space Allocation — Clearances are always a big issue. Some special needs students require additional space clearance to access things and to maneuver around in a classroom or educational space. There should also be a significant amount of space allotted to accommodate a swing or a “squeeze box/hug machine.” These pieces of equipment are used to calm down and or refocus some special needs students and require significant space.

There are also some other considerations to consider regarding the infrastructure of the room.

Swing for special needs learning environment• Technology — Many classrooms these days include projectors and or smartboards. These are fantastic tools to use in an educational setting, but some special needs students may not be capable of seeing them or accessing them directly. Technology used to link what is on the smartboard or is being projected to a tablet or iPad is now available so the student can participate with the entire class. There are also programs available to integrate Google Chromebooks with writing or dictation so students who struggle with writing or who cannot write at all can still complete and submit an assignment in class.

• Environment —The environment needs be engaging without providing sensory overload or extensive distractions for students with ADHD or similar challenges. Allowing classrooms to be flexible, and providing more than just a series of rows of desks is important. Plan smaller collaborative areas. Use tables in lieu of desks so special needs students in wheelchairs can get close and participate. Consider a mixture of stand-up desks with fidget bars, and allow students to move from one area to another reasonably frequently so they stay engaged and focused.

These are just a few of the many challenges and solutions to consider when designing or renovating spaces for special needs students.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Stephen Nelson AIA, LEED-AP, is director of Educational Architecture with Larson & Darby Group, vice president of the Sycamore (Ill.)SD427 Board of Education and serves on the Kishwaukee Division Exec Board and the Service Associates Executive Board of the Illinois Association of School.

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