VI. Design for people with blindness

*A study on the design of specialized schools for visually impaired and blind children across the world.

Worldwide, 285 million people are visually impaired, of which 39 million are blind. This is quite a large percentage of the worldwide population and the world should be adjusted for these individuals accordingly. Many of the design interventions are ‘invisible’ to those with vision, but the world is actually full of helpful aids for those who lack vision. The causes of blindness have changed over the years. In the past, childhood blindness was predominantly caused by vitamin A deficiencies and infectious diseases like measles. Since there was no proper medication at the time, many children suffered of blindness caused by these environmental factors. Much has changed since, but even now, vitamin A deficiencies and measles are still causing blindness in children in developing countries. The main causes of child blindness in middle and high income countries are related to hereditary retinal conditions and CNS disorders. The need for specialized education for blind children and the unfamiliarity and lack of resources at ordinary schools has led to the creation of Schools for the Blind. In large urban areas, there was a sufficient amount of children to justify special schools for the blind. However, in small towns these were not feasible due to small numbers of blind children in the area. Eventually this led to the creation of residential schools, where children who were raised many kilometers away, even young international students, could be taught at. Due to the lack of visual perception, special methods had to be designed in order to teach students topics like geography, physics and literature. But not being able to see print is not the main problem; also navigation and daily household tasks had to be taught to ensure the safety of the children. In order to aid students on all these aspects, the schools were adjusted to be perceived through all the other senses; especially through touch and via auditory signage. By emphasizing the use of other senses, interesting architectural design choices were made to guide the students through space. This essay will study the design of specialized schools for visually impaired and blind children across the world, and looks at how different design choices affect the users.

For this design research essay I looked into 4 case studies, 3 of which are schools for the blind and 1 library for the blind.

case study 1: Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (INJA), Paris, France (1785)

Séminaire de Saint-Firmin, 5ème arrondissement, Paris.

Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (INJA), Paris, France (1785) was the very first specialized school for the blind in the world and therefore served as an example for many consecutive schools. During a certain period, the school was housed in a former prison (seminary St. Firmin). The interior was humid and in a bad state, narrow staircases and small rooms surrounded by walls that felt moist when touching. The building smelled like mold and other rotting substances. Since blind children rely heavily on their other senses, including their olfactory system, it is interesting to note that no attention was given to improve these conditions of the building. The reason to house a school for blind students in a building like this was mainly based on the suitable existing floorpan of St. Firmin; it allowed a total separation of the sexes which was of high importance for the school director, and common in that period. 

case study 2: Perkins School of the Blind, USA (1887)

Ground floor Howe building in 1912 - Perkins School for the Blind.

Perkins is the oldest school for the blind in the US, in 1912 it moved to a campus which was specifically built for the school. This could be seen as a start towards inclusive design for the blind. School staff made several design decisions to make navigation through space as easy as possible. Themain Howe building is rectangular and has rooms and doors on the same side, therefore each hall looks alike with no unexpected surprises. The buildings had straight corridors and right angles, stairs were placed on the sides of the corridors rather than within the corridor; all of these adjustments were made to make navigating through unknown areas less dangerous. Attention was given to acoustic design. The buildings show a wide range of ceiling heights; the museum has a ceiling of normal height and the outer walkways adjacent to both the museum and the quadrangles have low ceilings. The differences in ceiling height create changes in echo and thereby giving the students cues of where they are positioned within the larger space. In hallways, changes felt in floor material indicated different spaces. Classrooms were placed with openings on to the courtyards in order to reduce the noise from trains near the border of the estate. Instead of a dormitory style plan, a residential cottage system was developed in order to makeliving more independent, by stimulating to learn daily household skills. The cottages were designed to imitate the quality of a regular home and prepared them for a future after graduating from Perkins.  

case study 3: Wechselmann School for the Blind, Hungary (1908)

Several different doorhandles in the school designed by Béla Lajta.

Building onto the functionality of the tactile design at Perkins while also adding stylistic ornaments, the Hungarian architect Béla Lajta designed a Jewish School for the Blind in Budapest during the Art Nouveau period. The Art Nouveau movement in Hungary was called Szecesszió, focused heavily on vernacular architecture, and within this Szecesszio was a subgroup called Fiatalok (translates as the young ones). This group was influenced by Finnish national romanticism and showed many references to f.e. Eliel Saarinen. This can be seen in the natural form of the stone arched entry that reminds of the entrance of acave. The architect combined Jewish iconography (ornamentation of menorahs and palms) with Hungarian folklore (deer). Many attention was given to the formation of 3D textures on surfaces like the walls. The arrangement of the bricks, with flat and protruding parts, defining the frames of the window and the arched door. The rich wooden and metal textures on the exterior of the building and also the fence led to an interesting tactile experience for the students. An important and recurring ornament in the design of the school is the use of brads, round head rivets. Similar to the units of an embossed Braille alphabet, it gives the students a tool to interact with the surfaces, while at the same time not hurting their hands with sharp edges. The rivets were incorporated in both the exterior as well as the interior, where the ornamental figures were ‘covered’ in Braille. 

case study 4: Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, USA (1978)

The Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Going 70 years further in time, we find a completely different solution for inclusive design. This building was designed to become a library for blind individuals of all ages, designed by architect Stanley Tigerman. This building was created during the postmodern movement. This movement was a reaction to the rigid and minimalist forms of architectural modernism as supported by a.o. Mies van der Rohe. Tigerman challenged the rigidity of the Miesian grid by using more natural curvilinear forms. These forms used in the library, makes that the users seem to be floating trough the space while also diminishing the chance of injuries caused by crashing into hard edges. This use of a wide range of bright colors, is also what is immediately visible in the design of the entire building. A visually impaired/partly sighted individual can sometimes still perceive contrasts and contours among colors, and for this reason Tigerman uses vivid colors for the exterior and interior to allow a strong visual experience. When blind visitors would step off the bus to visit the library, the colors will guide them to the building. Since people who are blind remember simple linear arrangements better than organic and complex floor plans, this floor plan is different from the curvilinear design used for the (vertical) exterior structure. The book shelves and reading areas are all positioned in a linear pattern to aid spatial memory forming, and helps to get you faster to your desired book. Rather than focussing solely on the special needs for people with disabilities, he still shows that they can be expressive works of architecture on their own. Although no color was used for the long grey concrete wall, it does contain a 165 foot long continuous glass window in a sinuous form. It looks like a sound wave, one of the senses that blind people are relying on more than sighted individuals. The counters parallel to the window follow the same sinuous pattern of the glass, yet in a flipped horizontal version, this allows wheelchair users to come closer to the desk at inbound curves, while the larger window surface gives the staff enough light to work with.

© Juliette van Haren 2019    ︎  ︎