by Jan Taylor
Students with special needs want what we all want: to be seen, to be appreciated, and to participate with others in the richness of everyday life. Helping students achieve these experiences in school settings is more attainable today, thanks to more empathic approaches to the design of learning, social, and recreation spaces.
Dialogue Dispels Disparities
Success in designing for students with special needs begins with study and lots of dialogue. Cotting School in Lexington, Mass. serves the needs of students with a broad spectrum of learning and communication abilities, physical challenges, and complex medical conditions. The initial stages of planning a 25,000sf campus center addition began with the design team observing how students used the current school and moved throughout the day.
We saw how many of the school’s hallways and common areas became quickly congested for students requiring wheelchairs and other mobility equipment. In talking with the students and staff, we realized how the opportunity to reduce the congestion in the new campus center would create a safer and more equitable experience for all students, regardless of mobility needs. This connectedness at all levels of ability, is what the design team sought to reinforce.
Among the findings of a CDC research project studying Gen Z mental health was the importance of students feeling connected to their school community. The study found that fostering this connection with accessible, inclusive activities contributes to each student’s sense of belonging and well-being.
The campus center addition at Cotting School features a 2-story adaptive climbing wall, allowing students to engage with peers in a safe and stimulating activity. Decorated with a custom abstract pattern that recalls forest, mountains, and sky, the adaptive climbing wall includes various routes allowing students with different physical challenges, including those in wheelchairs, to participate.
A replicable takeaway from working with specialized learning environments is the value of continual feedback and refinement. Because the Cotting faculty and staff were so engaged in the design process, we followed an iterative process of development and feedback that ultimately introduced a vibrant new campus center and an inclusive student experience.
The most important lesson from working on behalf of students with special needs is the opportunity for designers and our clients to envision new ways to promote inclusive learning and achieve a more ambitious level of social connectedness. Each step toward making our school environments – of every type and mission – more responsive to all learning styles will positively impact students. When school communities help students feel seen, valued, and included, everyone’s well-being and optimism rise.
Jan Taylor, AIA is president of Boston-based design firm ARC.