In these troubled times, (when has it ever been written that times were not troubled) most of us think that education is key and I have to agree. This encompasses formal education in schools, and things that one learn every day. Since this is too short an article to dig deeply, I want to discuss formal education, and the built environment around it. We have legal imperatives which say that this too, like the rest of society, should be integrated. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which came into effect in 2007 when 82 states signed the document including South Africa, but not the US, UK and Australia amongst others. These countries have since signed, along with 126 other nations, but the US has not ratified. The UK and Australia had problems with the wording relating to Education, and Immigration. (The US is still embroiled in the abortion issue).

I am so proud of South Africa for being in there from the beginning. We have the instruments and, in many ways, are ahead of first world countries regarding Human Rights n our legislation.

As far as education goes it is very complex. The Integrated National Disability Strategy

(INDS) was launched in 1997 so we were 10 years ahead of the UNCRPD. All schools should be accessible to everyone in every way. That’s an easy statement, but the teaching side encourages special needs schools to be available to others who might be attending mainstream schools, and vice versa.

”The deaf community views the full integration of a deaf child into a hearing classroom, even with the help of an interpreter, as restrictive to the child” (INDS)
‘Not all learners with disabilities have special needs in education and training, as they do not experience learning break-down.” INDS

My point is that as far as built environment designers are concerned, they should not be making educational environments that are not universally accessible, to enable the complexities of teaching diverse learners to be conducted, without the additional complication of physically inaccessible environments. When I was teaching at the University of Kwazulu-Natal School of Architecture in the Design Studio, one of the third year projects was to design a school for the blind. When it was presented to the class they were told of some of the difficulties that blind people experience in the built environment, and way finding, tactile ground surface indicators etc. but were still asked not to make it ‘too easy’ in case the learners thought that buildings in the world outside when they left school were also going to be like that!

Well I thought that was an indictment on the architectural profession, and rather bizarre to hear it being said at an education establishment. However, recently in the Architectural Record, which is a prestigious journal in the industry, a newly built school for Autistic children in the US was featured. Here the same thoughts were expressed. Hypersensitive children need control, similarity, predictability and safety. Spaces geared towards safety, transition, ease of use, and low sensory phenomena. I now have the impression that it is me who takes too much responsibility for the environment being universally accessible. In fact, all the ideal elements in this particular school would not exclude any able bodied, physically or sensory disabled person. It is a disgrace to think how methodically cruel and degrading this attitude is. The learners might emerge thinking that they did not deserve the same Rights as others. In fact, schools for the blind do take their learners on outings regularly, especially to negotiate traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, as that cannot be learned at the institution.

Perhaps mothers should put a stone in their children’s shoes once a week so they know what that’s like! It just shows how deeply embedded the subliminal discrimination of people who are different it can be.