Equal opportunities in the environment of education
A student at an Architectural School who is writing her thesis on a Resource Centre for Blind Students, asked me for some information relating to accessibility. She chose a site on her university campus and we met to discuss the context. It’s not a very old campus, but it has accumulated buildings as it has expanded. I was quite disappointed that a student thought that blind people might need a separate facility, so I immediately sold her the idea of integration of all students sharing in this Resource Centre. A sight disability could easily be accommodated in a separate section of a main Resource Centre. When the student asked me if I knew of a successfully accessible lecture theatre. I was a little embarrassed, personally I don’t know of one.
It is really disappointing to think of how many designers have been battling for more than ten years to get an idea into peoples’ heads – the idea that it makes good sense for everyone to have equal opportunities in the environment of education. It seems incongruous that a lecture outside under a Maroela tree is probably more accessible for everyone than most built venues! I recently spoke to a representative of a local company that makes seats for stadiums, theatre, cinemas, and entertainment centres.
He was quite astounded when I made the suggestion that some of the seating should be removable to make spaces in a variety of positions at any venue. None of the other architects he worked with had ever suggested this, although there is a provision in Regulations to allow for spaces for persons with assistive devices. Usually, spaces are simply allocated at the front and at the back of the main halls. But, why is it that the podium is hardly ever accessible? Frank Gehry’s concert Venue in the Millenium Gardens in Chicago is probably the best example I’ve ever seen. At most venues, effort has been made to accommodate wheelchair users, but not with a wide variety of choice, and the owners of these venues are always very aware of the number of ordinary seats that had to be sacrificed. Most main aisles are stepped, although I have seen some that are ramped.
Either way, it can be very complex to move into a seat from the aisle. A whole other thesis could be written on this subject. Getting back to the proposed Resource Centre accommodating blind people, I did some research and encountered a number of websites. It is a real learning curve to navigate a website intended for the blind, as they do not have any pictures. And as an Architect, I want to visualise, or see a diagram, and this is just not a requirement for websites targeting the blind community. But it got me thinking. Presenting a lecture to students who are blind might seem challenging, but it shouldn’t be. We should learn to be more articulate with words.
When I say ‘we’, I mean society as a whole. The first world countries are no better attitudinally, than we are in South Africa. Blind people don’t always socialise with other blind people. At sports stadiums for instance, or at the horse races, you only have to close your eyes to know that it isn’t only what you’re seeing that has an effect on you, but the sounds and the smells, and the chatter around you. Let us not exclude the blind from our theatres, whether they are theatres of entertainment or education – there is so much to be gained from simply being seated at each lecture or each event.