Multi-Sensory Design Aiding Children with Disabilities to Perceive Their Environment Better
Recent scientific research identifies that humans have between 22-33 different senses, of which light, touch, sound, smell, taste, temperature and pressure are the basic ones. These senses are a result of the stimuli received by the receptors in the body, which is then intercepted by the brain. Different types of receptors are responsible for different types of senses, along with determining their location and intensity. Thus enabling the sense of hearing, smell, pain and other body functions. The engagement and activation of these receptors create a meaningful pattern about our surroundings which ultimately paints the perception of the environment we live in. The process of gaining insights about different environments starts from childhood itself when a child starts developing basic motor functions. These motor functions in conjunction with our senses allow the brain to interpret the stimulus around us and allow us to perform various tasks such as sitting, running, jumping, etc.
Technological advancement in the design of our spaces and objects are being carried out digitally, leading to use of sleek materials such as metals and plastics. While it has its benefits, this has also led to children mostly using digital interfaces which has significantly affected the development of their motor functions. For children, especially with disabilities, underdeveloped motor skills can often obstruct even the strengthening of those functions that has not been affected by disabilities. Which is why conscious attempts should be pertinently made to transform the urban spaces through the use of a wider and innovative palette of materials for the development of these skills. It would help expose a child to different textures, smells, sounds and even tastes, and strengthen their sense of awareness about their environment. Early exposure to a variety of materials and their understanding of the same provides sufficient time children with disabilities to identify their preferred system of learning i.e. the visual system, or the auditory system, or the tactile system, or the kinaesthetic system or a combination of these i.e. a multi-sensory system. This could be ensured by creating multi-sensory-stimulating experiences and creating/modifying our environments to create more spaces that are stimulates sense. Installation of tactile indicators on the floors and walls can also be done to help in navigating through these spaces better. For instance, a wall ingrained with a wave pattern or any slightly different pattern of textured flooring will be easier to follow for children who prefer the visual system of learning. In the case of children who prefer the auditory system, a variety of different objects producing different sounds can assist them to identify different kinds of objects and their usage. For instance, movements on a steel staircase, a wooden surface and a concrete surface will be heard differently, with the former material being more audible, hence allowing one to assess the sound movements and frequencies; if someone is approaching from the staircase and how fast they are approaching.
Considering that one of the easiest way to impart these skills is to engage children through fun and play, playgrounds and other indoor-outdoor play spaces should be transformed into multi-sensory spaces. Gudgudee, a product and space design studio and many others have successfully created these transformations in the neighbourhood parks of Gujarat and Maharashtra. Their projects feature different activities for sensory and physical play, imagination boosting activities, augmented reality and virtual reality games. Along with designing spaces that can aid more activity for children with disabilities, it is also often important to provide peace and solitude by mellowing down such sensory stimulation. Additionally, children should be given a break from the heightened sensory perception through the usage of playful objects such as fidgets. Puzzler by Devanshi Mehra is a selection of such fidgets which are sensory tools that is specially designed to aid in relieving the stress caused to autistic children while learning in busy and noisy classroom environments, and to improve their focus. Their design is made up of two pieces that fit together like a puzzle. Each one is decorated differently with animal prints and nature-inspired textures. The pieces are intended to help support learning by offering visual prompts to various topics such as animals and habitats. To encourage solo play, the pieces light up once they are put together correctly. Another example is of sensory furniture called 'Mia Hoodie Chair' by Tink Thinks which simply uses a cloth hood that a child can put on to partially isolate themselves when they feel overwhelmed. It also features a swinging seat that allows a child the freedom in movement. The primary goal here is to create non-restrictive seating options that support kids when they feel overwhelmed or encourage a moment to fidget.
Such sensory-stimulating design techniques have proven to also be effective for the mental health of persons with disabilities. Thereby, authenticating that exposure to such environments in childhood can enable persons with disabilities to access, survive and thrive in different environments successfully through the various stages of their lives. Such environments also not only ensure the prosperity of the individuals that have disabilities since childhood but also of the individuals facing temporary disabilities, and of those who are more vulnerable to disabilities in the later stages of life. For the stated reasons, it is pertinent to create and include sensory stimulating environments as a part of universal design not only for children with disabilities but for all persons with disabilities.
Multi-sensory design is the key to inclusivity and universal accessibility.
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