Spotlight on Inclusion and Accessibility

Accessibility in higher education has many different implications and can be viewed from either a physical, economic, or social standpoint.

Higher education institutions are continuously making progressive design choices that create more accessible learning environments. Accessibility in higher education has many different implications and can be viewed from either a physical, economic, or social standpoint. Satoshi Teshima, AIA, LEED-AP, associate vice president and design principal at HGA, has an extensive background in higher education design and frequently approaches projects with the mission of creating spaces that promote accessibility in order to cater to diverse learning populations and accommodate a wide range of individuals. He recently spoke with College Planning & Management on the topics of inclusion and accessibility.

Q. What does accessibility mean to you and why is it important to higher education?
As designers, looking at accessibility in higher education has many facets. This can include anything from accessible ramps and automatic entryways for physically disabled students, to creating emotionally secure spaces for those with social barriers, such as gender-neutral restrooms. One of the most critical and effective ways to promote accessibility in academic environments is to plan spaces with a socioeconomic and inclusive mindset. Creating spaces that allow students and faculty to feel emotionally secure and motivated to learn is essential to the success of academic institutions.

According to a recent study from California State University (CSU) about basic student needs, more than 40 percent of CSU students reported food insecurity and nearly 11 percent of CSU students reported they’ve experienced homelessness one or more times in the last year. These statistics are important to be aware of and be mindful of, as difficulty meeting these basic needs can have harmful effects to students’ physical and mental health. CSU is attempting to mediate these issues by employing CalFresh outreach on campuses, which is the statewide version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

As designers, we try to heighten our senses for the specific student body an institution serves and try to put an emphasis on inclusive spaces of different scales. This includes academic classrooms and labs which offer flexibility of a multitude of pedagogical methodologies, as well as informal gathering spaces where social interchange takes place. With a strong sense for empathy, we aim to design spaces that promote the capacity to understand and feel what another person experiences.

Q. What are some of the design strategies for creating accessible learning environments?
When conducting campus planning and design, we think beyond the physical walls of higher education buildings. Many of our higher education projects in Los Angeles are with community colleges who serve a large number of first-generation students and those who come from a diverse demographic which has historically faced increased barriers to attaining an affordable education. As such, accessibility is a major aspect of how we approach the design of the built environment. Because of this, our approach when designing for accessibility mostly involves stripping away any potential barriers of entry by creating a non-intimidating and inviting environment. We strive to make all students feel welcome and to develop a sense of belonging which leads to stronger student success and retainage.

Accessibility for the built higher education environment involves creating spaces that are authentic to their purpose. It’s less about creating imposing, grand spaces and more about creating functional buildings that students and faculty can actually relate to and also embrace the overall campus fabric. The stronger a student relates to the physical environment, the more likely students and faculty will feel like they belong. We strongly emphasize and acknowledge the diversity of today’s student populations in both indirect and direct ways. Transparency and landscape are as important as environmental graphics that generate a sense of pride and belonging by including specific and authentic images which speak to the community each institution serves.

Q. What are some of the challenges of designing in this way?
As designers, we aim to design spaces that allow for as much transparency as possible, to create more inviting spaces that are easier to navigate. However, this presents a challenge when ensuring safety measures are also taken into consideration. One of the most successful ways to counteract security risks is to create an inclusive environment that heightens a sense of ownership. This will naturally create a space where students and faculty feel empowered to coexist and help each other in times of crisis. If students and faculty treat the campus as their home, security risks can be reduced—in many cases preemptively by reporting suspicious activity immediately.