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Editorial: “Expanding Normal: Towards a More Inclusive Approach to Designing the Built Environment”

By : Magda Mostafa

Architecture, at its very essence, is the process of providing physical space and place for human activity. Primarily concerned with responding to the specific needs of users and their societies, the built environment plays a tremendous role in shaping and facilitating the every day world we live in. Although being inextricably concerned with this man-environment dynamic, architecture however seems to limit its mainstream practices, education and standards to the conventional spectrum of “normal”. This leaves numerous user groups and victims of social circumstances largely excluded from the luxury of an architecture that deems itself specifically to serve them.
Such exclusion from the mainstream spectrum may be due to unique spatial needs and requirements of specific groups, or social phenomena that arise from particular transient or non-transient socio-political circumstances. Such marginalized groups include, but are not necessarily limited to, individuals with special needs and disabilitiesparticularly developmental disabilities with nonphysical manifestations; displaced persons due to natural or socio-political circumstances such as refugees and the homeless; minority groups; the elderly; the poverty stricken; victims of natural disaster etc.
By encouraging research in this area we may create a much-needed body of information and a number of methodologies and policies required to address the architectural and urban needs of such special populations. In this issue of Open House International authors present research that helps bridge this informational gap through evidence based design research, case studies, policy evaluation and other forms of scientific research that address the relationship between special populations and their existing, and required, built environments.
Expanding Normal
In most discussions of special needs and their populations, the word “normal” enters the dialogue, despite the polarizing opinions on its relevance, or indeed appropriateness and political correctness. But if one were to look more responsibly and critically at these delineations of “normal”, which are almost invariably based on quantitative cut-off points of IQ and physical ability, one would actually find a continuum of abilities and skills. Such delineations of “normal” are almost arbitrary and disconnected from the special needs user him or herself as a unique, holistic person, merely excluded from the scope of “normal” as a result of the distillation of his life- with all its abilities, unique perspectives and challenges- to a set of statistical ranges.
Furthermore, not only is this continuum commonly judged as purely quantitative- dealing with issues of physical range of motion, sight acuity, hearing decibel range, etc.- but it disregards the qualitative aspects of special needs use- such as comfort, sense of belonging and the accommodation of sensory challenges related to tactility and the olfactory, as well as the acoustical environment outside of the requirements of the hearing impaired. This all presents a powerful challenge to the concept itself of categorizing users into “normal” and “special”.
As Wendy Lawson- herself a person diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder- famously said in her talk at the World Congress on Autism in South Africa in 2006, after referring to “NT” individuals throughout her talk, when asked by an audience member who “NT” individuals were. She responded, “Neuro-typical, or what you would call “normal”. The only difference was that her talk was presented from an autistic perspective, a perspective that she quite rightly viewed as her “normal”, and “NT individuals” became, in this dialogue, the special needs. When this response was met with some surprise from the audience she calmly replied that a label wasn’t too comfortable and that it was no fun being outside of normal, now was it? It didn’t help that she just challenged, by unequivocal example, an earlier presentation on the inability of autistic individuals to understand humor, or even sarcasm, let alone practice it.
This critique of the term “normal” does not necessarily discount the tremendous importance of accessibility codes and various special needs design guidelines. It rather challenges them to expand their understanding of what needs require accommodation. It is ironic that accessibility codes, whose raison d’etre is to ensure inclusion of individuals with special needs in all built environments, are they themselves non-inclusive. As we learn more about the nature of human ability, we discover more and more the individuality of users, and the proliferation of hidden disabilities, such as learning disabilities, attention disorders, psychological disorders and developmental disorders such as autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The prevalence of such challenges is by no means small. With increasingly developed diagnostic tools we are realizing today the almost epidemic numbers of such challenges. Autism Spectrum Disorder alone, for example, has been recently estimated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States to be found to have a prevalence of 1 in every 88 children, with a 4:1 ratio of boys to girls. These numbers are startling, and can no longer responsibly be ignored. Perhaps the exclusion of such special needs from accessibility codes and special needs design guidelines, which are typically manifested in a spectrum, is a result of exactly that- a spectrum with a vast variety of level and type of challenges is very difficult to design for, let alone develop a code for. This brings us to the age-long debate when it comes to standardization, of generalization vs. specificity. While it is possible to develop, for example, a code for mobility challenges that can be accommodated by ramps and dimensional considerations, it is more challenging to do so for a spectrum of challenges such as autism. Some research has begun to look constructively at this challenge, with ideas such as dynamic matrices and hybrid codes of core accommodations, and customizable, flexible peripheral interventions for the uniqueness of each user. But even such approaches don’t discount the need for a more responsible, sensitive, holistic and critical investigation of the relationship between the built environment and these marginalized “hidden” special needs. Perhaps promisingly, there are a small, but growing, number of researchers looking at these issues, trying to redefine our approach to designing for special individuals in our built environments. This issue presents some of such discussions. Possibly the clearest manifestation of this position among the works presented here, is that of Ann Heylighen, Caroline VanDoren and Peter- Willem Vermeersch. By looking beyond anthropometrics towards the more qualitative aspects of the user-built environment relationship, they present a vignette into the experience of two special individuals. These include a visually impaired, as well as a mobility challenged individual. These user perspective cases examine the efficacy of special needs accommodations in a museum environment. They contend that in striving to measure and quantify disability, much qualitative richness in design is lost. The paper presents various views of classification and interventions from a more user-centered perspective, and poses an interesting dichotomy between customization and generalization, creating a premise for further debate. Evrim Demir Mishchenko presents a position on Universal Design as a concept, as applied to the basic right of access to education. By looking beyond accessibility, to issues of equality, social inclusion and justice, she begins to address questions such as usability, identifiability and sense of belonging and presents a more holistic approach to design. Again by adopting a user-based perspective, a university campus is analyzed, and its accessibility is challenged, as users identify not only actual, but also perceived barriers. If anything, this calls for a revision of code to address the perception of users as well as their ability, or lack thereof. By combining both a design audit of the campus and user workshop, she presents an interesting model to assess and develop more holistically userfriendly approaches to campus upgrading, as well as for designing new campuses with an expanded sense of accessibility, truly incorporating of the principles of Universal Design. In a similar user-perspective approach Yasemin Afacan expands our discussion to include yet another under-represented population in the discussion of special needs design and accessibility codes- our aging population. This user group is rapidly growing, with estimates that the number of persons over 60 may reach beyond 20% of the global population in the coming decade. Once again, looking at the perception and usability of space, in this case an urban city space, she presents a case for more sensitive design of our cities to accommodate this growing population. Using Burton & Mitchell’s “streets for life” concept she analyzes a case study of the city of Ankara, from the perspective of elderly users. She concludes with a checklist for an elderly-friendly inclusive urban environment model, which is fertile ground for verification and further development. The elderly population is also addressed in this issue from a more technological perspective. In the work of Avi Friedman, Aaron Sprecher and Bassem Eid, a computer-based model for masscustomization of prefabricated housing is discussed in its applicability to the aging population of Canada. They present this web-based model aimed specifically at elderly couples in their retirement. In this paper technology is seen its role to reconcile the historically counterintuitive and oxymoronic concept of customizing mass-produc housing. They discuss the idea of aging in place and its position in the customization process while presenting technology in its role as both processthrough online digital customization- and product through issues like home automation. In the second of the two more technical papers of this issue, Halime Demirkan looks at the qualitative dimension of a typically quantitative element- tactile walking surface indicators (TWSIs) for facilitated circulation for the visually impaired. Through a historical look at the development of these TWSIs he takes a critical look at their place in the “design for all” context. He goes on to discuss their efficacy and presents thoughts for further development of adopting alternate channels for environmental information, for those deprived of the sense of sight. This collection of works presents both the variety and the common thread amongst researchers attempting to challenge and blur the delineation between the “normal” and “special” population, perhaps towards even eliminating the line altogether. They present a collective call to design responsibly, sensitively and holistically along the spectrum and continuum of human abilities and individualities, and expand our normal to be truly inclusive.

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