Accessibility 2013

Accessibility. Often times this word is described as a minimum standard; an obligation in the design of any facility. How would students — all students —benefit if planners and designers changed our perspective on accessibility in design? How would learning be impacted if the content were accessible to all students, regardless of learning style or disability?

Students with disabilities are in need of accommodations, but every student stands to benefit from the incorporation of design elements that address acoustical and visual access, as well as different learning styles and proper technology integration. Accessibility is not only about getting students into the classroom, it is also about getting the education into students — all students.

Those with hearing impairments are not the only students affected by poor classroom acoustics. Being able to hear instructions is a fundamental imperative when it comes to delivering educational content to students. As much as 80 percent of what students learn is provided by spoken communication. Many factors affect speech intelligibility including ambient noise, the geometry of a classroom and reverberation.

In the Essex Study, conducted by the Essex County Council, students and teachers tested four classrooms — three acoustically treated rooms and one untreated control room. Researchers not only concluded that the acoustically treated classrooms affected the delivery of educational content, but had a positive impact on student behavior. Teachers commented that vocal strain was reduced due to the acoustical treatments.

Properly controlling the ambient noise created to operate a building can significantly impact its affect on classroom acoustics. Up to 40 percent of audible information can be lost over a distance of 26 feet, and reverberation should be controlled through the use of acoustically absorptive materials. With such a significant quantity of education being delivered verbally, properly addressing classroom acoustics not only benefits students with hearing impairments, but improves acoustical access for all students.

Students with visual, and even hearing impairment, may benefit from good visual access. In addition, most students in this generation of technology are visual learners. Visual delivery is effective and popular for teachers to integrate into all curriculums, and access can be impacted by many factors including lighting, line-of-sight and the use of visual aids. Appropriate lighting improves test scores, reduces off-task behavior and plays a significant role in student achievement. Providing flexibility with seating arrangements can allow a good line-of-sight to any and all teaching points within a classroom. The successful use of visual aids, which include audio and visual equipment as well as mobile technology, can provide all students with the visual access they need to be successful.

Visual learners access information visually, auditory learners through hearing and kinesthetic learners through hands-on experimentation. Everyone has a primary learning style, but we actually employ a combination of learning styles to retain information. Writeable wall finishes and flexible wall systems can provide flexibility in educational delivery that benefits visual and auditory learners.

Providing flexible furniture and different styles of seating not only accommodates different types of learners, it can address the limitations on students’ abilities to sit still and focus in the classroom. Elementary students struggle to focus after five minutes. Middle and early high school students struggle after about 15 minutes, and older high school and college students after approximately 25 minutes.

Different styles of furniture allow students to sit, stand and move around the classroom to work individually or in a group. In addition to the successful use of flexible furniture, the proper integration of technology can have a significant impact on a student’s ability to learn. Technology integration is not just about providing cutting-edge equipment in the classroom; it is about delivering education in a manner that empowers the learner to retain the curriculum. Students with learning disabilities or challenges benefit from flexibility within the learning environment, but with proper implementation, that benefit could extend to all students.

The built learning environment has an impact on a student’s ability to access information and achieve academic success in the classroom. Strategies that accommodate different learning styles in the classroom, provide for acoustical and visual access and successfully integrate technology into the learning process can impact every student. Accessibility in the classroom is an educational need that transcends compliance. 

Wayne Reynaud is an associate principal with PBK with over 23 years of experience in providing architectural planning, design development and construction administration services. He is an active member of the Council of Educational Facility Planners (CEFPI).