Designing for ALL

As architects, it is our primary responsibility to design for the health, safety, and general welfare of our clients. When we design schools, however, our primary focus shifts from the client to the end user—the students.  

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 6.4 million U.S. students receive services for special education; both nationally and locally, trends suggest that this number will continue to increase.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 17% of the state’s entire student population is on an individualized education program and is considered to have special needs. 


The implementation of, and subsequent revisions to, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975 entitled students with special needs to a free and appropriate public education, capable of meeting his or her unique needs. Before this, many schools did not offer special education services of any kind, and those that did often segregated them in isolated areas—out of sight, out of mind. IDEA marked a watershed moment in the fight for equal educational rights—once-marginalized special education programs began receiving the funding and prioritization they deserved.


Fight for Your Rights

In the 1990s, Lydia Gaskin, who was born with Down syndrome, fought to be included with her general education peers and receive real educational support. As advocates of inclusion and the IDEA, Gaskin and her family spearheaded a class-action lawsuit, Gaskin v. the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and won. Their lawsuit laid the groundwork for modern special education services, and catalyzed a paradigm shift in how educators approached pupils with learning difficulties.

Why does all of this matter to architects and educational planners? 

According to Magda Mostafa, an architect and leader in the design of spaces for autistic students, although special needs students “ultimately have to live in a non-customized environment…we need to be more conscious of the quality of the environments built specifically for their basic needs…to allow them the sensory reprieve to develop the skills they need to cope.” 

Special time and consideration must be devoted to making sure that the spaces we design for education provide for the health, safety, and welfare of ALL students, ensuring that all children have an equal chance to thrive. As designers, if we remain conscious of special education ideas and strategies throughout the design process, we will better position students to learn to succeed.

Subsequent research has found inclusion—the practice whereby students with special needs are included in general education classrooms as much as possible, receiving push-in/pull-out services with specialists as required by their IEP—to be the most effective method for educating special needs students.