Creating higher ed space for learning disabilities

Purpose-built environments to accommodate college students with special needs
By: | Issue: January, 2016
December 28, 2015

The spaces we create for people with learning disabilities can support success or guarantee failure.

Three decades ago, I led a team in designing an entire college campus specifically for students with learning disabilities.

Some $40 million later, we had transformed the former Windham College into Vermont’s Landmark College. It was the first purpose-built environment intended to support teaching, learning and living for students with a spectrum of learning disabilities and related challenges, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder.

For those with physical disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines provides a road map to an accessible building in the U.S. Yet there is little information on learning disabilities and the built environment.

So, with a nod to the many architects, engineers, vendors and contractors I worked with, I would like to share some considerations when designing and creating campus spaces for people with learning differences.


Color can impact students psychologically and physiologically. Walls, floors and ceilings should feature warm, neutral colors, while strong or primary colors should be avoided.

Teachers should leverage student color preferences, whether it’s on study carrels, through colored reading lenses or by using different colored tape for boundaries on charts.


Certain fluorescent lighting can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea. I remember scoffing early in my career when a faculty member first raised this issue with me—until I did some research.

Now I consider effective lighting as one of the central design considerations, as important as color and finishes.

In common and living spaces, a combination of indirect and soft overhead lighting should be used, avoiding old-style fluorescents if possible. In classrooms, a “batwing” fixture assembly with three full- spectrum electronic fluorescent tubes can shine lighting indirectly.


How many times have you walked through an echoing space with hard surfaces and felt rather insignificant as your footsteps trailed miserably through the reverberating room?

Designers should focus on finishes that absorb rather than reflect sound:

  • acoustical tiles in the ceiling
  • carpeting for floors
  • walls with space for hanging art tapestries and other features that break up reverberation

Ventilation assemblies can be noisy, especially when overworked. Air should move quickly but silently. Placing acoustic privacy dampers in ventilation ductwork can prevent noise spillover between adjacent rooms. Acoustic seals on doors can help as well.

Classroom furnishings

Faculty prefer access to wheeled tables that can be rearranged instantly to support group, break-out or individual learning—although powering moveable desktop computers can be a challenge.

Chairs should be soft, comfortable and “fidget-able” (controlled tilt-back and moveable-back chairs are ideal) so students can place some of their energy into the chair rather than the surrounds.

The view

Provide someone with ADHD with a window to gaze out and you lose their attention. At the same time, natural lighting is critical to livable spaces. Interior and exterior windows should therefore provide light and restrict view.

Clerestory windows and doors with side panels that have blinds are good solutions. Semi-frosted windows let in natural light but decrease distractibility.

Security is also a concern, so classrooms should be equipped with window covers that can be let down at a moment’s notice to ensure that no unwanted visitor can look into the room.

Your next building committee should include a subcommittee that can focus on invisible disabilities. Virtually any solution that supports distinctive thinkers can also provide equal benefit to neurotypical learners across a diverse spectrum of needs.

Brent Betit is an executive at the King Salman Center for Disability Research in Saudi Arabia, where he oversees the academic and training division. Betit was one of the founders of Landmark College, the world’s first college for students with learning disabilities.