Designing for inclusivity

Three design and programming considerations for accommodating special needs users when adapting an existing facility or building a new one
By: | February 12, 2020
Nazareth College’s Golisano Training Center was designed for an NCAA athletic program and as a venue for the Special Olympics—incorporating wide spaces, sensory considerations and a wellness program to meet the needs of all users.Nazareth College’s Golisano Training Center was designed for an NCAA athletic program and as a venue for the Special Olympics—incorporating wide spaces, sensory considerations and a wellness program to meet the needs of all users.
Gabe Antenucci is a higher education project manager at LaBella Associates.

Gabe Antenucci is a higher education project manager at LaBella Associates.

Nazareth College’s Golisano Training Center (GTC) in Rochester, New York, wasn’t built to be your typical collegiate athletic facility. But, perhaps, it should become the norm.

The 108,000-square-foot GTC was designed from its inception for an NCAA athletic program (Nazareth currently competes in Division III) and as a venue for the Special Olympics. In addition to competition and practice facilities, the building also supports ambitious educational programs for Nazareth health and human services students in fields such as physical therapy, audiology and speech. Through the partnership, the college will provide free health screenings and wellness programs for Special Olympics New York athletes. The partnership will also offer Nazareth students in health and human services the unique opportunity to develop a specialty in working with individuals with special needs.

Many design features for users with special needs are advantageous to all users. The result is a unified win-win.

Supporting all users

Inclusive environments have been the goal for a long time and many facilities have done a remarkable job of adapting their environments to remove barriers for special needs users. As part of the programming and design of GTC, the Nazareth team, including LaBella Associates, toured some of these adapted facilities to discover what works and what doesn’t. Regardless of whether you’re adapting an existing facility or you’re shaping a new building from the outset, here are three design and programming considerations:

  1. Remember the caregivers. Every designer has a basic understanding of the amount of space a wheelchair requires because the Americans with Disabilities Act and subsequent building codes have mandated minimum clearances. However, what those minimums fail to account for—and even Universal Design principles sometimes miss—is the space required for a person or team of people who may be assisting one or more wheelchair users. For GTC, we also incorporated lifts into our restrooms, ample adult changing areas, and reconfigurable locker room benches. Early programmatic meetings with all user groups allowed us to include appropriately sized spaces from the outset.
  2. Take into account sensory processing and temperature control needs. Enter into Syracuse University’s “the Loud House” in New York or Notre Dame Stadium in Indiana and you’ll find out that the sensory environment can be a factor in the performance of elite athletes. The impact of distractions can play an even larger role in the special needs community. Since GTC was designed to host a Special Olympics program that includes simultaneous events, it was important to consider opaque curtains, thoughtful audiovisual placement and control, and strategic use of color—all of which have been appreciated by all athletes. Temperature control was also important since athletes with special needs may have sensory processing disorders and may be at increased risk of overheating. A sensory recovery room was included as a respite from overstimulation. This space also functions as a dark room for concussion protocols for all athletes.


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  3. Boost campus and community engagement with wellness programs. Nazareth leaders, and those at other higher ed institutions, understand the positive impact that athletic facilities, intramural athletics and wellness programs have on student recruitment and retention. For many campuses, that may have been reason enough to invest in a facility like GTC. However, Nazareth’s highly successful health and human services programs serve as a model for what can be achieved with a campus and community focus. Nazareth’s students work regularly with community patients to gain experiential learning opportunities, while the community gains additional health and wellness resources by working with students and faculty. By creating an inclusive facility, Special Olympians will be part of a Nazareth community of therapy, nursing, social work and athletic training students and faculty. The GTC café and unified weight room will allow for all groups to meet nutrition, fitness and wellness goals while they’re in the facility.


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Most critical to the success of the facility: Engaging all of the building’s users at the outset, including Nazareth faculty, students and student-athletes; Special Olympians; Sportsnet; and the Kids Miracle Making Club. It is common sense to do so, of course, but too often we program and design for typical users, and then look for barriers to correct after the fact. Best practices for inclusivity will require more square footage in certain areas, so it is essential to work with the appropriate space requirements from the beginning and get creative with your design and program to bring the building in on budget. Many design features for users with special needs are advantageous to all users. The result is a unified win-win.


Gabe Antenucci is a higher education project manager at LaBella Associates. He was part of the design team for Nazareth College’s new Golisano Training Center for students and Special Olympics athletes.