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The built environment and a suitable space for learning


A dilemma exists regarding the access needs of those with a disability in the build environment. Should we adapt the home, school, college, university and the wider community or teach people to cope? Given that no environment will be perfect, we probably need to do both. That is,

  • Teach skills in order to cope 
  • Design suitable buildings 
  • Adapt older buildings 
  • Encourage the attitude that everyone has a right to access and operate independently within society’s public and private spaces 
  • Raise awareness about the needs of disabled people in the built environment

The built environment can help or hinder. Everyone is more confident and moves around more easily in a familiar, suitable and safe environment. 

A few basic principles

Following are a few principles to consider and address in order to assist those with low vision.


Décor aids or hinders light levels and access to the environment.

Contrast and clarity

A contrast between surfaces anywhere might need highlighting to distinguish both. This can be achieved by using different colours or tones. For example, the colours or tones between a wall and door frame, door frame and door, and door and handle.


It is generally accepted that we use light tones for bigger areas and darker ones for smaller areas. For example, a ceiling should be light, walls slightly darker and door handles darker still. Different tones of the same colour are fine.


To avoid frustration, wasted time and danger, a space should be orderly. 

  • Visual clutter should be avoided 
  • Cluttered wall displays and shiny surfaces can confuse 
  • Furniture and equipment should be orderly and consistently laid out and ideally set against a plain background 
  • Light streaming through a window can clutter vision by creating confusing shapes and patterns on floors and work surfaces 

Accessing public information

  • Notice boards should be at an accessible height. 
  • Notice boards and displays should be orderly 
  • Out of date notices should be removed 

De-clutter and define activities according to space

Floor covering and furnishing can provide useful clues about an area. 

  • Designated spaces should be clearly marked 
  • Define clear boundaries by using for example furniture 
  • Floor or wall colouring can provide good locational clues
  • Patterned carpets, lino and curtains can contribute to visual clutter

Wearing highly pattered clothes can cause visual clutter. If an object is presented visually in front of highly patterned clothing a confusing back drop exists.


  • Table tops and work surfaces should not have reflective surfaces 
  • Ideally a work surface should be dark in colour when supporting light materials and light when supporting dark materials 
  • The edges of tables should form a tonal contrast with the floor


Lighting suitably delivered is probably the most effective low vision aid.

Blinds, curtains and net curtains are useful for controlling strong light but should be kept clean. It should also be possible to draw them back to allow maximum light through if necessary


  • Consider the overall impact of light in a given area. That is, natural light, standard electric light and task lighting. Note for example, cloak rooms, corridors and stairs are often poorly lit 
  • Task lighting is a useful way of delivering light precisely 
  • Lighting should be appropriate to meet individual need 

Ideally, light should come from behind the person with low vision. However, those interacting with a child or young person should not be lit from behind as this might produce a silhouette and block out features.


Glare can be a major problem.

  • Light refracted off surfaces can cause discomfort, be very confusing and can generally disable 
  • Gloss paint work can cause glare. It can reduce the benefits to orientation gained by blocks of contrasting colour 
  • Polished floor surfaces cause glare 

Generally speaking, ensure that your child’s or young person’s position in relation to a light source is suitable and safe. For example, ensure that s/he is positioned appropriately in relation to accessible power points and on/off switches. Remember also, lengths of cable if not suitably positioned or covered can trip someone up.

Sounds and masking information 

Environmental sounds can be useful or be a hindrance. Therefore, sound should ideally, 

  • Be meaningful or interesting 
  • Not hinder concentration, cause confusion or be frightening

A radio or TV playing in the background can mask useful sounds which provide clues to life generally. 

Sound quality 

A sound’s quality is affected by:

  • The number of people in a room 
  • The activities taking place and competing in the room 
  • Your son or daughter’s position in relation to the sound sources 
  • The size of the room 
  • Furnishings in the room


  • Don’t assume that your child or young person knows a sound’s source. Mention it because it might prove to be a useful reference point 
  • When your child is young quality time should be set aside for learning new surrounds.

A useful exercise 

Following is an exercise to help you consider if an environment is suitable for someone with low vision. To begin, ask yourself: 

  • Is the space hindering the child or young person? 
  • Can the environment and child’s or young person’s position within it be improved? 

Identify the following 

Identify an area where there is: 

  • Glare from windows 
  • Glare from surfaces 
  • A cluttered working space 
  • Poor control of,

a. natural lighting 

b. electric lighting

Poor control of natural light could be highlighted by no blinds or curtains at a window. Poor electric lighting could be highlighted by electric bulbs not working or spaces with sudden changes in light level. 

Identify an area where there is: 

  • Good control of light levels,

a. natural light 

b. electric light

Identify an area where there is: 

  • Confusing audible information 
  • Useful mobility information on the floor 
  • Dangerous trailing points 
  • Unnecessary obstacles in a common area 
  • Inaccessible notice boards 
  • Inaccessible personal storage areas

Then, to achieve a less confusing environment: 

  • Consult with your child or young person 
  • Prioritise areas needing attention 
  • Share results and thoughts with others working with the child or young person and especially those who can make changes 
  • Do not generalise need

It can of course be difficult not being budget led. Some changes to the environment will cost more and take longer to implement. Therefore, highlight need as soon as possible but above all remember, safety must be a major consideration. 

If you feel isolated, in need of professional support and information see what Families and Special Educational Needs can offer.

Copyright 2020