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7 Universal Design Tips to Foster Inclusive Education

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Designing with inclusivity, accessibility, and diversity in mind has to be one of the biggest trends for 2022 and beyond. We explore seven design aspects to facilitate inclusion, design for diversity, and be more adaptive to the technologies available.

7 Universal Design Tips to Foster Inclusive Education

Rockfon Eclipse installed as an acoustic element to balance the sound for a comfortable classroom

Around 800 million young children around the world are affected by biological, environmental, and/or psychological conditions that can limit their everyday abilities. In Europe, recent estimates suggested that there are at least 15 million children with special educational needs (SEN). 7.5% of them were identified with autism, whilst roughly 15% of them have dyslexia – the most common learning disability and perhaps the best known. 

Unfortunately, children with SEN are frequently overlooked in policymaking, limiting their access to equal education and their ability to develop their skills and realise their full potential. They face persistent barriers to participate in society, stemming from ignorance and discrimination. This leaves them with few qualifications and are much greater likelihood of being unemployed or economically inactive. 

 

Disability is one of the most serious barriers to
education across the globe

 

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As an architect, it is time to look beyond the conventional and commit to actively building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive world — starting from the classroom, where every student feels welcomed, valued, and heard, and is treated with dignity and respect.

In this article, we explore 7 design aspects that help facilitate inclusion, learning from diversity, and being more adaptive with the current technological advancements.  

This isn’t an exhaustive list — do reach out if you have additions! 

What is inclusive design in education? 

The term “special needs education” means different things in different countries. The SEN Code of Practice updated in 2015 defines special educational needs under four broad areas: 

1. Cognition and learning

These are learning disabilities that limit children from learning basic numeracy or literacy skills. The conditions can be ranging from dyslexia (difficulties with reading and spelling); dyscalculia (maths); dyspraxia (co-ordination) and dysgraphia (writing). 

2. Behavioural, emotional, and social

Children may have severe difficulties in managing their emotions and behaviour. They require a more structured learning environment, with clear boundaries for each activity and more space to move around. 

3. Communication and interaction

Here, the need is for an easily understood environment with a low level of distraction due to some difficulties in communicating and understanding language. This includes a range of conditions such as autism, pragmatic difficulties, or sensory processing disorder. 

4. Sensory and/or physical

These children might suffer from some forms of disabilities that affect their ability to access the environment or learn. Classrooms for children with sensory or physical impairments require special attention to acoustic and lighting conditions.  

What is Inclusive Education? 

The European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education (EASNIE) referred to inclusive education as “the provision of high-quality education in schools that value the rights, equality, access, and participation of all learners.”  

This means all children in the same classrooms, in the same schools. It allows real learning opportunities that some groups have traditionally been excluded, not only children with disabilities. They can follow education in mainstream classes alongside their peers for the largest part — 80% or more — of the school week. 

A beautiful conversion improved by acoustic materials

BuBaO Sint-Lievenspoort School is a school for special elementary education, working with children who have hearing problems or who are on the autism spectrum, putting more focus on quality acoustic solutions to balance the sound levels and create comfortable learning hubs.

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7 ideas to create an inclusive classroom 

Here are seven ideas to incorporate a sense of inclusivity in learning facilities.

1. Equal Accessibility 

Accessibility is an obvious but significant consideration. Separate entrances for students with disabilities can make students feel isolated, whilst installing ramps will allow them to use the same entrances as their peers. 

For those students who need to utilise walking aids, wheelchairs, and more — it’s essential to have the necessary space to facilitate their participation in solo and group activities. Some SEN pupils may tire easily and will require a place to rest; hence, routes around the classroom should be planned to minimise travel time.  

Architects also should consider how easily students in wheelchairs can reach handrails, markerboards, desks, bookshelves, and other essential classroom tools. 

2. Good Acoustics  

There is too much ambient and background noise in the classroom. According to the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health’s report, 77% of students when asked what most disturbed their learning said ‘noise’. Research states that younger children are much more susceptible to poor acoustic conditions than adults, with children in their primary school years experiencing greater detrimental effects of noise and reverberation. In fact, for every 10dB increase in noise pollution, young students performed 5.5 points lower on their national standardised test.  

Noise does not affect children equally. Pupils with autism are often sensitive to specific types of noises and for those with hearing disabilities, it is crucial that they can hear and understand speech from their teacher and peers.  

It is essential to get rid of various distracting background sounds, while still fostering spaces that encourage conversation, discussion, and collaboration, not just in the classroom, but also in large open spaces, like the cafeteria or sports hall.  

Acoustic ceiling tiles or wall panels can play a key role to improve sound quality and have been shown to reduce ambient noise by as much as 50%. They can soften the background noise or remove echo entirely, ultimately creating a happier, more inclusive space.  

3. Natural Light 

Lighting plays a key role in creating a successful learning environment because it can significantly improve health and productivity. One study of 21,000 students in the US showed that pupils with more access to natural light have 26% higher reading levels and 20% higher maths results.  

While creating a well-lit learning space, architects need to consider — for example, the colour temperature should be within the range of 3000K to 3500K, so it isn’t too cool nor too warm, which can create unwanted effects. Or there shouldn’t be any glare, which can prompt children to squint, resulting in eye strain and headaches.  

You can also use “passive daylighting strategies,” such as using windows, skylights, clear doors, light tubes, mirrors, light shelves, and other reflective surfaces, to promote the quantity and even distribution of daylight throughout a building. This requires less energy to keep the building lit during the day. This, in turn, could decrease operational costs and help reach sustainability goals. 

Do you know that our best-in-class acoustic ceiling tile — Rockfon Blanka® — can draw natural light 11% further into space than many other ceilings? 

4. Comfortable Temperature 

The connection between classroom temperature and learning is well documented through many research studies — with the optimum temperature being between 20°C and 25 °C. In fact, if a school year was hotter by 0.56°C, students demonstrated a 1% decrease in how much they learned that year. 

In 2017, a Harvard graduate student analysed data from 1999 to 2014. The goal was to find a connection between New York City high school students’ performance on a test they must pass to graduate and the temperature outside on test day.  

The test was typically administered in June when temperatures could be quite warm. The results showed that students were 12 percent more likely to fail their test if it was 32°C outside than if it was 22°C. 

These, in turn, emphasised that when the body is subjected to thermal discomfort, a person’s brain will be focusing on maintaining the body temperature, rather than concentrating on schoolwork.  

5. High Air Quality 

In 2020, the University of Manchester published a study demonstrating that maintaining lower air pollution levels in and around school grounds by 20% could enhance the development of a child’s working memory by 6%, the equivalent of four weeks extra learning time per year. 

Nevertheless, failure to prevent or respond promptly to indoor air quality problems can increase long and short-term health effects for students and staff. Nearly 1 in 13 children has asthma, and indoor environmental exposure to allergens can trigger and aggravate symptoms. Unfortunately, these problems can cause a reduction in performance, while accelerating facilities’ deterioration that leads to costly repairs. 

6. Visual Transparency 

This principle of visual interconnectedness is an emerging standard in new school construction. By replacing opaque structures like walls and doorways with glass partitions and uninterrupted lines of sight, we make learning communal, facilitate collaboration, and encourage participation from observers.  

“Through visual transparency—by looking through a window into something interesting happening in a makerspace, robotic lab, or a classroom—you’re creating a public conversation about teaching and learning,” says David Stephen, an educator, an architect, and the founder of New Vista Designs for Learning, a school design and curriculum consulting firm in Boston. 

Architecture transparency not just aids visual navigation and spatial orientation for children who have hearing difficulties, but also helps pupils with autism perceive their surroundings, which can make them feel safe. 

The goal is not to force interaction but to make inclusion so natural, it is comfortable for the individual and invites the option for interaction. Students are not simply attending five or six classes on a particular day; they become aware that they are part of something that is larger and more encompassing. 

7. Advanced Technology Equipment 

There is no doubt that technology has changed the way children learn in the classroom. It enables greater accessibility to content; more streamlined communication between and among students, families, and educators; and increased engagement and more personalised educational experiences. To effectively support all students — especially students with disabilities — we need to ensure that technology is inclusively incorporated into the classroom design plan.  

There are tools to aid reading — such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR), a method of converting text from paper format to an electronic version, talking books, software that converts text to audio. And there are tools that help with writing — for example, voice recognition, word prediction, and/or portable notetakers.  

This, in time, can help close the opportunities gap while promoting remote learning. “The classroom is no longer confined by brick and mortar, it is a global classroom,” says Dr. Tiffany Anderson, Superintendent of the Topeka Public Schools. “We are teaching teachers how to instruct differently—taking students on virtual field trips, on digital learning walks around the world—educating in an exciting new way.”  

Download our 7-step guide for inclusive learning

Moving Forward 

Universal design for inclusive learning might be considered expensive and complex, but its advantages by far surpass the cost. When students with SEN can have equal opportunities and accessibility, it builds their confidence to reach their full potential, while allowing them to form more connections with others.  

As things stand, our decision can increase or decrease their barriers to participation in society.