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Designing For The Special Needs Community

What challenges do architects face when designing spaces for the special needs community?

How can architects use their creativity in solving these design challenges?

Are architects able to do more to enhance the quality of life of people from this community?

These questions were part of the insightful discussion that took place during the ‘Designing for Special Needs Communities’ webinar held on 31st Mar 2023.

Before we dive in further to discuss these questions, we need to know who are the people whom we consider to be part of the ‘special needs community’.

Who Would We Consider to Be Part of The Special Needs Community?

The term "special needs community" refers to various groups of individuals who have disabilities or special needs that require additional support or accommodations in order to participate fully in society.

The special needs community is diverse and encompasses people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. It includes individuals with physical disabilities, sensory impairments, intellectual or developmental disabilities, and mental health conditions, among others.

People within the special needs community often face unique challenges related to accessibility, communication, and inclusion, and usually require specialised services and support to help them lead fulfilling lives.

Challenges Galore

Designing spaces for the special needs community can be challenging due to the diverse needs and requirements of different individuals. For architects to design spaces that would make a meaningful impact on the lives of people with special needs, they would need to have a deep understanding of the diverse needs and requirements of different individuals.

In essence, they will need to be aware of potential challenges faced by the special needs community in public space, find opportunities to better understand the special needs community and the relevant architectural features that can be adopted to address these needs, so as to create inclusive spaces that are accessible, safe, and welcoming to everyone.

Today, it is heartening to see that public education campaigns over the years on accessibility features have borne fruit as most members of the public recognise accessible features for people with physical disabilities when they see them.

Features such as ramps, elevators, wider doorways, and accessible restrooms, and layouts of spaces that do not create barriers for people with mobility impairments, are familiar to most.

What we want to touch on here in this blog post, are the challenges that are harder to address as they involve multiple stakeholders and require a change in the collective public psyche.

Nevertheless, at WeCreate Studio, we believe that if everyone plays their part in pushing for enablement, empowerment, and engagement with the special needs community, it will make a big difference to their lives and make public space more inviting and less intimidating for them.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into some of the challenges to be addressed.

Lack of Understanding

Firstly, a lack of understanding of the special needs community persists among the public, caregivers, and fellow architects. So, when our friends with special needs go into meltdown in public space, they are sometimes viewed as a menace and having some form of disability.

For this mindset to change, we need a paradigm shift within the public consciousness, to think of the special needs community as being disabled by the environment rather than being disabled themselves.

In Singapore, national agencies play a key role in driving public awareness, but more can be done by the private sector, and definitely by us architects, who are often in a position of privilege when it comes to designing and shaping public space.

At the national level, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS), works closely with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to support persons with disabilities in Singapore, overseeing a range of disability services and programs, which includes vocational training and employment, education and training, assistive technology, and community integration.

NCSS also works with various partner organisations and stakeholders to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to the necessary resources and support to lead fulfilling and independent lives.

One such partner is the St. Andrew's Autism Centre. It is a non-profit organisation and specialised autism centre based in Singapore which provides a range of services and support for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their families, including diagnosis, early intervention, education, vocational training, and residential care.

With a team of experienced professionals and therapists who work closely with families to provide customised support and care for individuals with ASD, St. Andrew's Autism Centre also conducts research and collaborates with local and international organisations to advance the understanding of autism and improve the lives of individuals with ASD.

More such public-private partnerships will definitely go a long way in helping to ensure that the environment becomes less disabling for the special needs community.

This includes the collaboration of government agencies with employers to create inclusive workplaces, partnering with schools and universities to promote disability awareness and inclusion, and engaging with the wider community to promote greater understanding and acceptance of people with special needs.

Only a multi-pronged approach will suffice in creating an environment that promotes the well-being and empowerment of the special needs community instead of one that silently encourages their exclusion.

Well-designed spaces that incorporate the lived experiences of people can play a very important role in bringing together people with or without special needs, to help achieve the ultimate goal of inclusivity in society.

Collaboration is Key

In our previous blog post on participatory design and community engagement, we mentioned how the use of community engagement in architecture can be a very powerful design approach and one that we at WeCreate Studio view as the centrepiece of our design strategy.

So, in order for architects to design buildings and spaces that are more responsive to the needs and preferences of the special needs community, architects need to take a collaborative approach towards design.

But who do we architects collaborate with for projects involving special needs for it to be a resounding success?

For design projects involving special needs, the co-creation of space has to be done with the people themselves who have special needs, caregivers of those with special needs, the organisations and staff that are involved in training or taking care of people with special needs, and volunteers who spend their time interacting with people with special needs.

They are the important stakeholders of the co-creation process.

Ensuring that all stakeholders have a voice and implementing their suggestions into the design of the space would allow them to develop a sense of ownership of the designed space and more importantly, to ensure that the designed space can better fulfill their unique needs.

By striking a balance between emotional, mental, and physical spatial needs of the important stakeholders, it will allow for better quality design of space to enhance the quality of life for the special needs community.

Architects vs Social Services Professionals

Another important group of collaborators in the co-creation process is the social services professionals. It is often said that architects are more concerned with the aesthetics of the design and rightly so because architects deal with the design of spaces.

Social service professionals, on the other hand, are less concerned about the aesthetics of space and are instead more fixated on the practicality of the space to ensure the smooth deliverability of the programs and services they designed for the special needs community.

When the agendas of both architects and social service professionals are different, there will definitely be challenges in aligning agendas and in communication, when both parties use different terms to express their project goals, while striving to achieve the clients’ needs.

To overcome the challenge of differing agendas and interests, both architects and social service professionals have to remind themselves who they are building for, and how both parties share the vision of enhancing the quality of life of the special needs community.

End of the day, both architects and social service professionals would want to see the special needs community enjoying the space that was built for them, instead of the space being empty or underutilised because the final design did not fit the needs of the special needs community.

This shared vision will help to keep the design project on track and the teams on the same page despite differing opinions on design. This collaborative approach towards architecture and program planning can also allow for greater self-dependency and well-being in public space for our friends with special needs.

Sensory Sensitivities and Safety

Other than the physical safety features that are easier to implement in public space such as grab bars, non-slip flooring, and handrails, there are some less tangible features that are more challenging to incorporate in design.

Such features are sensorial in nature, less physical but nevertheless equally important as these subtle features can affect how the special needs community perceive a space, i.e., whether the space is welcoming or intimidating to them.

Some individuals with special needs may have sensory sensitivities to light, noise, or certain textures. When designing spaces, architects need to carefully consider the use of materials, lighting, and acoustics that are appropriate for individuals with sensory sensitivity.

For example, facades of buildings can be used to introduce different buffer zones and activity spaces, such as including courtyards that are shielded, or thoughtfully positioned apertures to allow natural light into the building.

Using more durable materials in buildings would also help to ensure the safety of all users when they encounter challenging behaviours and meltdowns from our friends with special needs, who may exert involuntary amount of physical force on certain building features that may lead to wear and tear.

Lastly, designing the building layout in a way to create a strong visual connection between different parts of the building can also help to foster a sense of social inclusion and togetherness.

Punggol Regional Library: A Beacon of Inclusivity

When it comes to collaborative and inclusive design, the Punggol Regional Library is a shining example for fellow architects to take inspiration from.

Since 2018, the National Library Board (NLB) has done extensive engagement with over 500 persons with disabilities and their caregivers to explore how libraries can better serve their needs. These efforts have culminated in the accessibility features that are on display in the Punggol Regional Library.

NLB has also continuously consulted its Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee, which was set up in 2019, to support efforts to increase the accessibility of public libraries for the disability community. This can go a long way to help make the library a space that has more accessible reading, learning discovery opportunities for the special needs community.

So, let’s have a look at some of these accessibility features incorporated in the spaces of Punggol Regional Library!

The priority use Accessible Icon

Photo Credits: National Library Board

First up, visitors to the library will be able to see the Accessible Icon, which will be marked on selected facilities and spaces, to indicate that persons with disabilities will enjoy priority usage rights.

The special needs community can also look forward to an Accessible Collection featuring up to 3000 English books for children and adults with disabilities, their caregivers, and communities. The topics of the books were chosen based on feedback from users of the disability community.

Accessible Collection in Punggol Regional Library

Photo Credits: National Library Board

And if our friends from the special community happen to go into meltdown during their first time in the unfamiliar library surroundings, there are calm pods available that are equipped with sensory aids, a beanbag, padded walls, and flooring, aimed at providing users with a quiet and safe space.

Specially designed Calm Pods acting as safe spaces in the library

Photo Credits: National Library Board

The private and calming sensorial experience will surely help them to recalibrate themselves so that they can continue to explore the library in high spirits!

To enable the special needs community to comfortably use library facilities, the library has wheelchair-accessible tables, along with other assistive technology devices, such as catalogue stations that are equipped with joysticks, trackballs, large keyboards, and high contrast keyboards, to help persons with special needs to perform functions that might otherwise prove challenging without such interventions.

Catalogue stations that are equipped with an array of assistive technology devices

Photo Credits: National Library Board

For a seamless borrowing experience, the book borrowing stations in the library have larger font size and colour contrast on the user interfaces to aid persons with partial vision loss, which includes the elderly, in the borrowing process.

User friendly book borrowing stations for those with partial vision loss

Photo Credits: National Library Board

For those with from physical disabilities, Ultra-High Frequency Radio Identification technology will offer them a contactless experience, allowing them to borrow books with ease by going through a special passageway equipped with this technology with their books, without the hassle of physically checking out the books as per the normal borrowing process at the usual book borrowing stations.

Lastly, to ensure that those with special needs can fully enjoy their library experience, NLB will offer the Accessible Membership to such users of its space. The Accessible Membership would provide an expanded scope of library services across all libraries for special needs users, such as longer borrowing periods (21 to 42 days) and free reservation of items (which usually costs $1.57 per reserved item).

That’s a whole lot of perks and incentives to make the library experience more inclusive for special needs users!

We hope that other public and private service operators can follow Punggol Regional Library’s lead in engaging the special needs community and work to find out how they can incorporate various forms of innovative assistive technological interventions to make their service offerings more inclusive for the special needs community.

Paving the Way for an Inclusive Design Community With hello empathy

We hope that the Punggol Regional Library's design can serve as an inspiring example of what is possible in design; and challenge architects, designers, social services professionals, educators, and various service operators, to rethink what is possible and what else can be done to make their designs, products, and services more inclusive.

As previously mentioned, architects hold considerable power when it comes to shaping spaces in society and hence have a pivotal part to play in promoting inclusivity, diversity, and empathy in society, to help fulfil this vision.

At WeCreate Studio, we believe that empathy is the key in paving the way for Singapore to become a more inclusive design nation.

As such, we have developed a conversation card game, “hello empathy”, which was inspired by on-the-ground insights from the autism community, to help facilitate conversations about empathy and inclusivity.

The hello empathy conversation card game

We are using the card game as an empathy toolkit to deepen the experience of architects so that they would know what to look out for when conducting community engagement sessions and when they happen to be involved in design projects with a social element.

“hello empathy” can also be used by social entrepreneurs as an educational toolkit to familiarise their staff with empathetic thinking when designing service offerings.

As part of our public engagement campaigns to spread the word on the importance of inclusive design, we also hold quarterly empathy talks throughout the year.

These talks allow us to engage empathy advocates and the general public with the experience of hello empathy gameplay to provide them with the opportunity to share their views and beliefs on how interactions within the public space should occur, preferably in an empathetic way.

Moving forward, we hope to engage our younger generation with “hello empathy (kids version)” in the not too distant future, as the best way for inclusive thinking to spread organically within the public psyche is for the inculcation of an inclusive mindset to start from young.

If our children can grow up as inclusive individuals, inclusive design will become second nature to them and something that they will practise on a daily basis.

When that happens, the design quality gap for the special needs community will shrink and that would make the public space a better place for all.


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