Accessibility Through the Senses
How can the educational environment include children with different sensory and physical abilities and become even more interesting for everyone else?
Although the topic of accessibility is frequently discussed lately, it still carries the negative stigma of something that limits creative momentum in architecture and design. Discussions often start with a focus on the slopes of ramps and dimensions of elevator shafts, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes impassively. However, if we look at this issue from a different angle, we will find that by designing with consideration for people in disadvantaged positions, the physical environment could become incredibly enriched for everyone.
In the realm of educational design, it's extremely important to adopt a positive approach to accessibility based on the potential of all users, as kindergartens and schools are some of the first spaces for socialization and integration. These are spaces that, aside from being centers of knowledge and information, are also hubs for communication, games, and friendships. Education is, above all, a social service to which everyone has the right to access. Unfortunately, however, this notion of "everyone" often reflects the views and expectations geared toward the average, healthy woman and man/girl and boy. This tendency to stereotype human abilities and capabilities manifests itself in the absence of so-called "different" children in educational institutions. The reality in Bulgaria is that "everyone" is far from actually being everyone. A significant group of people is placed in a disadvantaged position compared to the rest and becomes isolated from society.
Who is the person in a disadvantaged position - the disabled?
To delve deeper into the topic of accessibility, it is important to understand exactly who are the people most directly affected by it. The widespread notion is a person in a wheelchair or holding a white cane for the visually impaired. But here is what the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2012)  defines:
What does this mean? First, a disability is characterized not only by physical abilities but also by intellectual, mental, and sensory ones. Second, the physical environment is crucial when it comes to a disadvantaged position. It often serves as the cause of this position but also carries the potential to transform the "disadvantaged" into the "advantaged."
This means that accessibility cannot be solely physical, contrary to the widely accepted understanding. On one hand, efforts to integrate people with different needs manifest in the creation of a physically accessible environment. Meeting several requirements of national legislation concerning minimal distances for walking paths, elevator installations, sanitary facilities, the placement of ramps, etc., is definitely a step forward. It ensures physical access, but it is insufficient.
On the other hand, there is the often overlooked sensory accessibility. A large portion of people with different needs are precisely those who process sensory information differently. This social group often remains seemingly invisible to society.
In Bulgarian educational buildings, for example, in the best-case scenario a physically accessible environment is provided by installing new elevators with appropriate dimensions, installing ramps when there is a change in elevation, etc. This is a manifestation of a traditional approach to accessibility, based solely on the weaknesses and deficits of the target group and focused only on physical characteristics. In other words: if there is a motor impairment, it is solved by means of a mobility aid.
A positive approach is needed to ensure accessibility based on the strengths of the target group. Taking the above example - instead of the ramp remaining solely as an auxiliary means, it could become an accent in the interior, for example, as an inclined exhibition space (a kind of mini-version of the Guggenheim Museum in New York ☺), which attracts not only disabled children but everyone else as well. This would contribute to the integration of children with motor difficulties: the ramp would not be stigmatized as the "ramp for the disabled," but as a place for art and creativity used by all.
Another example would be children with verbal communication issues in school. We could integrate them by creating enough opportunities to draw in socialization spaces or the classroom. Various options have been developed for drawing on walls, furniture surfaces, or even the floor. This would allow the child with special educational needs to express themselves in an alternative non-verbal way. It's also key that they are given the opportunity to share their activities with other children, thus more easily integrating into the school community. Children would draw together during socialization time instead of being spatially separated into activities for students with special educational needs and those without. In other words, a choice is given to each child.
Adopting a positive approach when creating an accessible environment would mean allowing children with disabilities to be together with others and share their experiences, rather than merely being present somewhere on the sidelines.
This very approach to accessibility, which provides choice and is built inclusively on the potential and abilities of different people, is at the core of building the so-called universal environment. This is the ultimate, somewhat utopian for the moment, but still achievable goal in the future when conditions are achieved that are suitable for everyone. For everyone, everyone! By ensuring physical and sensory access to the environment, it inevitably becomes richer for every single user. Measures to ensure physical access facilitate elderly people, pregnant women, parents with strollers or small children, etc. Measures for sensory accessibility would add more sensory experiences, making experiences in a given space even more exciting for all children. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities  stipulates:
Universal design means equality. It accommodates the broadest spectrum of individuals. The solution is suitable for everyone, regardless of their abilities and skills. Building universal environments suitable for all must become a trend, especially in the design of schools and kindergartens. These are the most important spaces where early integration for all children, no matter their different abilities, could and should happen.
How could we ensure sensory accessibility in the educational environment? A possible approach, which is extremely suitable for educational spaces, is the multisensory design approach.
The main idea is to include more sensory stimuli in the material environment and engage more senses of the users of the environment. Such sensory stimuli could be created from various types of materials and textures. In the classroom and in the corridor, for example, it would be appropriate to have an area with soft materials, such as carpet, plush, cork, etc. Educational boards, instead of being two-dimensional surfaces, could be turned into three-dimensional educational installations: volumetric letters or numbers that can easily be rearranged by both teachers and students. Musical installations for children are also becoming more popular outside of interactive museums - one such can be seen in the garden in front of the National Theater in Sofia. Why not also engage the sense of smell by providing "green" stations with herbs and flowers that emit different fragrances throughout the year? Including more spaces for diverse movement during the learning process contributes to the proper functioning of the vestibular and proprioceptive systems: swings, active chairs, pilates balls, climbing areas, etc.
Such an approach would include many more people in experiencing a given space, as more opportunities and alternatives for interaction would be discovered between person and matter, as well as between person and person. In a lecture, Ellen Lupton, curator at the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York, ironically points out "Do Not Touch" as the favorite motto of museum curators. She explores multisensory design as a tool for including people in disadvantaged positions:
In architectural lingo, the multisensory approach appears as “phenomenology in architecture” and involves the stimulation of multiple sensory systems in the perception of space. A well-known phenomenologist is the architect Juhani Pallasmaa, who writes in his book "The Eyes of the Skin"  with concern about the dominance of visual perception and the suppression of all other sensory systems. He emphasizes the need to return to a multisensory environment. The eyes as a sense provide information about a given space and event, but it is partial and incomplete. Relying solely on them as an information channel poses the risk of turning people into passive observers. By activating all senses, users of the given space become participants that experience it:
As a scholar of phenomenology in architecture, Arch. Juhani Pallasmaa is highly interested in the experiences that different spaces provoke. Sensory perceptions are a function of the material environment. Proponents of this approach aim to establish not only a physical connection with a given space but also an emotional one. Isn't this precisely what we aim for in educational space design? Establishing a positive physical and emotional connection between children and the educational process. A friendly, discovery-stimulating environment in which one can draw, experiment with music, dance, etc., would build a much more positive attitude towards learning itself in children.
Many cross-points can be found between contemporary trends in education and various therapeutic approaches for children with disabilities. The purpose of identifying these cross points is to emphasize that the design of educational spaces which are accessible for all works entirely in harmony with new educational trends. It does not limit creative endeavors, but rather enriches them with new ideas and diverse sensory perspectives.
What is more, this would allow a significant group of children with special educational needs to be included in the mainstream education system, rather than dropping out and being educated solely in specialized centers or through individual plans at home, where social integration cannot practically occur. The approximate number (official published data are lacking ) of children with special educational needs in Bulgaria is 32,000, and of those not included in the public education system - 10,000 . There is also an undetermined number of children who are not diagnosed due to the lack of a well-functioning methodology, as is the case with children on the autism spectrum in Bulgaria, for example.
An important common aspect of both universal design and educational design is related to a key concept that has been mentioned several times and is central to phenomenology in architecture–namely "experience." The multisensory approach offers experience. Experiencing means that all senses are involved, not just vision and to some extent hearing, as in the traditional model of education.
New trends in education focus on the idea of learning through experience, which in itself presupposes an environment that stimulates the different sensory systems.
Stimulating various senses has long been an integral part of therapy for children with disabilities, specifically those with cognitive, sensory, and behavioral challenges. Well-known and widely applicable in therapeutic settings is the Theory of Sensory Integration  by psychologist Jean Ayres from 1973. The core idea is that by working with different sensory systems the overall mental and physical condition of children improves significantly, as well as their communicative and cognitive abilities.
In other words, the application of a multisensory approach in the design of educational spaces has the potential to include children with different needs and skills by giving them the opportunity to develop various talents, to share them, and thus to socialize more easily. Additionally, they learn much more easily because they receive information in a more accessible way - through different senses. Instead of merely focusing on their weaknesses and deficits, we should look for ways the environment could unlock more skills and reveal more of their strengths.
Another such common trait that illustrates the above idea is the so-called "seclusion corners," which have recently gained great popularity in office environments as well as in schools. Whether in the form of niches or furniture pods, they offer the opportunity to be alone with oneself, isolated from the hustle and bustle of everyday life: spaces for concentration and independent work.
Such escape spaces are part of the interior design in many therapeutic centers, especially those attended by children on the autism spectrum with cognitive difficulties, and other disintegrative conditions. They appear in architectural research under various names: "retreat box" (Richer & Nicoll), "escape space" (Magda Mostafa), "cave-like spaces" (Claire Vogel), "quiet room" (Ch. Beaver), and so on. These are spaces with minimal stimuli, designed for rest and calming in cases of sensory or emotional overload. They provide children with an opportunity to withdraw if they feel overwhelmed and to soothe their senses. Interestingly, the same need is increasingly recognized in modern offices as well as in schools.
This again demonstrates the overlapping trends between therapeutic environments and modern educational and working spaces. While initially designed with the needs of children with disabilities in mind, these kinds of spaces fulfill a more universal requirement for sensory balance and emotional well-being. In doing so, they align with progressive educational philosophies that prioritize experience-based, multisensory learning and the overall well-being of students and staff.
Another analogy can be drawn with the theme of flexibility and easy reconfiguration of educational spaces. There is a search for solutions that allow the environment to quickly and seamlessly adapt to specific educational needs. This discussion is connected with the idea of free movement within the learning space and all beneficial effects that regular change of body position has on human health.
It's no longer mandatory for each child to sit at a desk. The learning process could take place on the ground, in an amphitheater-like space, in a workshop, or even in a corridor. Different easily transformable zones are set up in the classroom, allowing the teacher to work according to the specific topic of the lesson. Such zones could include a soft seating area, a group work area, an individual work area, a floor work area, etc.
In terms of therapeutic spaces for children with special needs, this is also an important trend. The environment can quickly adapt to the needs and preferences of the child. Provisions are made for a free space for play and learning on the floor (such as the Floortime program, for example), an area for individual work, an area for group work, a soft corner, etc. Again, the need for movement and change that can happen easily and quickly is evident.
In conversations conducted in the spring of 2020 by Lusio with Jewish community school in Sofia, the school psychologist, part of the personal development team, elaborated on the need for precisely this kind of flexibility in the interior. She emphasized the possibility of reconfiguring furniture in different zones according to "the age of the children, the number of visitors, and the type of work" as especially important.
Other cross points include:
- The trend towards more spaces for socialization and communication
- The inclusion of interactive technologies
- The calming and refreshing influence of greenery in the interior
- The direct connection with external green spaces
- The integration of arts into the environment
- And many others.
Like in any other field, the multisensory approach to design could be deliberately implemented and/or reinforced.
Ultimately, so-called "different children" are not all that different. What does "different" mean, and what does "normal" mean? If you try to list all the characteristics of "normality," it would turn out that only a handful of people meet those criteria. Children with disabilities have not only different educational needs but also different abilities and talents. If these are discovered and shared in our society, starting from kindergarten and school, it would enrich the perspectives of all other students, teachers, and parents. We are all part of a beautiful palette; let's not deprive our society of any color!
Author: Dr. Arch. Denitza Dincheva-Merdzhanova
Graphics by the title: Denitza Dincheva-Merdzhanova
Part of the team at architectural studio "LUSIO Architects," specialist in multisensory design
Completed PhD at UACEG (University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy), Department of "Interior and Design for Architecture," Topic: "Architectural Aspects of centers for people on the autism spectrum," Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Arch. Orlin Davchev
Lecturer in elective course "Physically and Sensory Accessible Environment," Master's degree, UACEG
. UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2012 [Bulgarian source] https://www.mlsp.government.bg/index.php?section=CONTENT&I=283
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), 2008 https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html
. Museums should activate multiple senses, not just the eyeball | Ellen Lupton | TEDxMidAtlantic. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1-r7CR6FsI
. Lupton, E. Lipps, A. 2018: Why Sensory Design? Cooper Hewitt
. Pallasmaa, J. 2005: The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.
. Ingold, T. 2000: The Perception of the Environment. London: Routledge
. The Academic Network of European Disability Experts (ANED). 2018: Country report on the European Semester - Bulgaria, URL: https://www.disability-europe.net/country/bulgaria
. UNICEF. Data on Children with Disabilities in Bulgaria and Around the World. URL: https://www.unicef.org/bulgaria/
. Ayres, A. J. 1973: Sensory Integration and Learning Disabilities. Western Psychological Services.