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Inclusive Design: Informing and revaluing contemporary architectural practice embracing a visually impaired perspective

Part 2 Dissertation 2014
Rachel Slater
University of Liverpool UK
Architecture is a multi-sensory experience, yet contemporary architecture and architectural practice are often associated with a visual bias. The auditory, haptic, olfactory and gustatory dimensions of the bodily experience are frequently overlooked, potentially disconnecting the user from their surroundings. This situation is exacerbated for people with visual impairments who have to deal, on a daily basis, with a world largely designed for sighted individuals. As disability is often characterised by the physiological norms of the wheelchair, minimal consideration is given to sensory impairment. A more subtle appreciation of user needs is therefore required.

Furthermore, with an aging population and the increasing prevalence of underlying causes of sight loss, such as obesity and diabetes, a greater portion of society (there are currently 285 million visually impaired people worldwide) may ultimately inhabit an inadequately designed built environment. It is, therefore, opportune to challenge the current visual dominance in architecture and find ways of re-establishing multi-sensory qualities to create an accessible and enjoyable built environment for everyone.

This study investigates how people with a visual impairment perceive aspects of the built environment, in particular how they understand, interact and engage with their surroundings using all of their senses. It addresses the spatial and material qualities that our senses perceive, and investigates them in detail from a visually impaired perspective. The findings from the user-based interviews are compared and contrasted with theory, published guidance, and practice, illustrating through good practice examples and qualitative diagrams how the more subtle spatial and material qualities can be assimilated to enhance the legibility and experience of the built environment.

By analysing the built environment from this alternative perspective, this study provides an understanding of the impact of design decisions on the user, identifying obstacles presented, albeit unwittingly, by current practice and highlighting potential opportunities for future designs. The aim is to give a greater insight into how people with a visual impairment actually understand and use their surroundings, rather than relying on assumptions, and to utilise this multi-sensory knowledge to inform and revalue contemporary architectural practice in a more inclusive and multi-sensory manner.

Rachel Slater

Rosa Urbano Gutiérrez
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