The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) suggests that disability is contextual. Environmental contexts can reduce or exacerbate disability. If an environment enables a young girl with a left leg amputation who uses a wheelchair to access spaces the same ways everyone else does, she is not disabled in this context. In accordance with the ICF, if she has to gain access to an environment via a steep ramp, be carried because the only access is steps, or be unable to enter at all, she is disabled. If she cannot participate or engage in the space, she is disabled in this environmental context. In the exemplar above, the ramp and steps are adjacent. The surface is crushed stone and the ramp slope is barely discernible. Both wheeled mobility users and those ambulating can equitably gain access to the Zen garden beyond the shelter. There is no backdoor entrance; all are equal and welcomed through the front door.
Universal design refers to products, services, and environments usable by the widest range of people possible, despite ability, age, or preference. Inclusive design is “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.” Unlike accessible design, which is often stigmatizing, institutional looking, and possibly embarrassing for users, universal and inclusive design is sensitive to users’ physical, cognitive, and emotional needs, and is aesthetically pleasing. Universal and inclusive design is about equity and parity.
If we step back and look at the whole child, there is more to universal and inclusive design than, say, addressing physical challenges. In an ideal design scenario, universal and inclusive children’s outdoor environments nurture the child’s intellect, emotions, sensory systems, and yes, physical skills. Below are ideas for inclusive and universal design, and why they belong in all children’s outdoor environments.
Seating – select child-sized chairs and tables. If furniture is to be used for snacks, art, writing, and science projects, avoid adult-sized furniture. If children cannot sit comfortably, they cannot follow directions or do what is asked of them. Note: outdoor tables and benches with holes in them are sub-optimal because children cannot write on a surface with holes and children with tactile sensitivity will find the surface very uncomfortable to touch. I prefer seating with armrests because they ‘envelope’ children and make them feel safe. If designing a fixed bench arrangement, curve it and leave an open space in the middle. A child using a wheelchair or a child in a stroller can sit here and be included in the conversation.
Pathways – these should be wide enough for two wheelchairs to travel in tandem or pass without either having to veer off, or in hospital settings, wide enough to accommodate a gurney. Pathway surfaces such as crushed stone, rubber matting, bricks, river rocks embedded in concrete, and even mulch is fun for sensory exploration, to challenge balance, and to compare and contrast. Note: although ADA approved, mulch is hard to propel a wheelchair through and tough to navigate on crutches or with a cane, especially when wet. To achieve a goal of including various pathway surfaces, a smooth and wide main pathway with narrower offshoot paths of varying surfaces is a good option to promote choice and challenge. Curbing of contrasting color is important to keep wheels and heels on paths and is key for orientation for children with blindness or low vision or for children with autism who tend to only look straight ahead while walking.
Plantings – raised and inclusive for seated gardeners, providing room for knees to clear beneath the planter. Having to torque the upper body to garden is painful and stigmatizing. The example below is ideal for seated and standing gardeners. The plexiglass sides provide incredible observational learning potential.
Play structures – if possible, keep play elements at grade. It is easier for children with physical challenges to use, and for children with sensory integrative issues, at grade elements increase the likelihood they will use them. If there are elevated structures, install steps, low-sloped ramps, and ropes, keeping these multiple access points adjacent. In the structure, ensure that all players can interact with all the elements—locate features at standing and seated heights, include elements that require sight and sound to activate. Bring sand and water tables up to seating height or provide a lift to lower children into a sand pit.
Swings – that snuggle around children makes them feel safe and helps them understand where their bodies are in space. While many swings accommodate children with physical challenges, transferring from wheelchair to swing can be hard for a caregiver. Install a wheelchair friendly glider swing with a ramp access. Make sure the swing has a bench to hold other children to offer ample opportunity for socialization.
Entrances – can young children enter via a pint-sized door while bigger children and those in wheelchairs enter through that very same gate? See how it can be done below:
Comfort – many children with mental-health needs take medication that causes photosensitivity. Many children with autism are photosensitive. Provide an abundance of shade, overhead fans and misters (where conditions indicate), and drinking fountains. Avoid bright and shiny metals as they cause glare. Stained or tinted concrete also dramatically diminishes glare.
Getting away – including nook spaces, grassy knolls, a little bentwood structure, a tunnel, or other cocoon-like spaces takes priority in inclusive design. For children with mental-health issues, ADHD, and/or autism, this space provides respite, a retreat for when being with others is overstimulating.
Universality and inclusion is also about our word choices. For example, when talking about designing spaces for stroke victims, cancer survivors, cerebral palsy patients, autistic children, depression sufferers, and blind people, we lose the essence of their humanity. What is wrong with these descriptors that you hear in everyday speech and read in mainstream publications? None of them put the person before the condition; rather the disease or condition defines that person. It is much more positive to talk about a garden for children with autism rather than a garden for autistic children, or worse, an autistic garden. Universal and inclusive design becomes more empowering when the person precedes the condition or diagnosis. Using person-first language in written reports and discussion with clients positions you as a more engaged and informed partner. It may feel strange to change the language, but as an occupational therapist I say this with conviction, it matters. It matters to clients and it matters to the end users. It demonstrates empathy and compassion for whom the project is intended.
- Center for Universal Design (n.d.). Introduction to universal design.
- Inclusive Design Research Centre (n.d.) What is inclusive design?
Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, Affiliate ASLA, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Western Michigan University and Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Washington and is Co-Chair of the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN. She is co-author of Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces, published by Timber Press.