The Ahead Journal


A Review of Inclusive Education
& Employment Practices ISSN 2009-8286

‘My Big Life Fix’ Project - Innovative Practices in Social Care: Bridging Disability, Design, and Higher Education

Mr John Balfe

Lecturer, South East Technological University (SETU)


About the Author

Dr Eoghan O'Shea

Lecturer, Dept of Architecture, SETU Waterford

About the Author


On the 9th of February 2024, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris TD, announced the roll-out of higher education courses for students with Intellectual Disability (Gov of Ireland, 2024). In addition, Minister Harris announced a budget of 1.8 million for inclusion measures to take place on college campuses like sensory maps for students with autism. It is timely then that higher education universities re-evaluate their college campuses to meaningfully include the voice of people with disabilities in its campus design. This issue is emphasised in recent scholarship that highlights the critical importance of inclusivity in education environments (Burgstahler, 2015). It is within this context that the pursuit of educational equity and the integration of inclusivity within the architectural and design fabric of higher education institutions becomes a paramount priority. This article presents an innovative teaching and learning project undertaken by the South East Technological University (SETU), aimed at bridging the gap between disability access and higher education. By engaging third-year Professional Social Care undergraduates in a collaborative endeavour with individuals with disabilities, architecture, and design academics, the project sought not only to understand but to fundamentally reimagine the university campus experience to meet diverse needs.

Context: Background and Issue

The lived experiences of people with disabilities reveal not only the harsh reality of systemic inequalities and barriers to accessing higher education, but also oppression and exclusion when in the system (Van Aswegen & Shevlin, 2019). A recent study conducted by Ryan (2019) on the intersection between disability and social class reveals how higher education in Ireland is failing students with disability by compounding complex inequalities and oppression. The study emphasises that the voices of students with disability are critical to understanding a different way of thinking about disability, but were rarely consulted, particularly about access issues to higher education in Ireland. Considering the stark shift to neoliberal values that has ‘inconspicuously but harmfully changed the subjective experience of education at all levels’ in Ireland (Ball, 2016: 1046), it is not surprising then that education has become a supplier to the free market providing a Darwinian ableist workforce specified to the needs of employers (Van Aswegen & Shevlin, 2019). Consequently, traditional academic curricula and campus designs often overlook the nuanced requirements of students with disabilities, responding primarily to the neoliberal market driven demands of an ableist society (Springer et al., 2016: 31). This leads to an education system that inadvertently perpetuates exclusion. The physical, social and emotional space that people with disabilities engage with are often not fully consulted by other professionals such as architects and designers. Despite the undoubted awareness of the need to detect any potential obstacles with legal and building regulation requirements to reasonably accommodate, there is however an absence of the more nuanced and ‘embodied experience’ of people with a range of disabilities that is not fully valued in the design process (Vermeersch & Heylighen 2015:1) It is within this political and policy context that the project at SETU was grounded in the principles of rights-based citizenship and equality, aiming to transform theoretical knowledge into practical, life-enhancing outcomes. Through direct engagement with the disability community in Wexford, social care students expanded their understanding of disabilities beyond the lecture room, fostering a deeper, empathetic connection with those they are poised to advocate and empower.

Action: Participatory approaches, Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Universal Design

At the core of this project was the concept of  'My Big Life Fix', an innovative initiative that inspired social care students to pair with academics from the faculties of architecture and design. This collaborative effort commenced with a participatory inclusive approach, engaging with individuals with disabilities to grasp 'a day in the life' of those directly affected by accessibility challenges. A participatory approach from the academic community can help foster empathy and understanding (Hart, 2018). By engaging with the daily realities of individuals with disabilities, students embarked on a journey of understanding that transcends traditional academic boundaries. By immersing themselves in the lived experiences of people with disabilities, students gained a nuanced perspective that informed their design principles, echoing Hart's findings on the effectiveness of consultation in generating empathetic insights and actionable knowledge. Silverman and Gwinn's (2017) research on empathy and inclusion underscores the project's intention to enhance students' understanding of disability issues. The participatory research component significantly contributed to breaking down stereotypes and fostering a culture of inclusion, mirroring the project's impact on student empathy and understanding.

These invaluable insights became the foundation for reimagining an accessible educational environment, emphasising the need for a campus that embodies the principles of universal design. Using Goldsmith's (2000) manual on universal design principles provided a foundational framework that informed the collaborative efforts observed in this project. The emphasis on equitable use, flexibility, and intuitive use of space informed the students' approach to campus redesign and facilitated a practical application to action feedback from people with disabilities. Steinfeld and Maisel's (2012) work on universal design reinforces the educational value of interdisciplinary collaboration witnessed in this project. By applying universal design principles in a real-world context, students experienced first-hand the potential of inclusive environments, aligning with these authors' advocacy for built environments that accommodate everyone.

Teaching point: The intersection between Universal Design and Critical Pedagogy

The aim of this project was to embrace universal design principles to a higher education campus design (Burgstahler, 2015: Bel et al, 2012; Rao, Ok, & Bryant, 2014; O Shea et al, 2016; Mosca & Capolongo, 2020: Gu and Yoo (2012) while simultaneously taking a critical practice approach to disability and society (Ball, 2016; Heylighen, 2014). The underlying pedagogical emphasis was to allow students to explore the transformation processes in practice by shifting the focus back onto society, social policy, and government responsibility. It was to give students a critical perspective by changing the lens, from the neoliberal values of individual responsibility of people with disabilities to fix or adapt to that of societal responsibility to accommodate everybody’s needs.

In the higher education sphere there has been much emphasis on the concept of universal design for learning (UDL) drawing on the principles of universal design (Star & Kerr, 2014; Cummings & Rose, 2019; Ferguson et al, 2020; Fornauf & Erickson, 2020). However one of the issues of this approach is that it places an individual emphasis on the student and educator to implement UDL principles into pedagogy abdicating the University of some if not all of the responsibility (Rydeman et al, 2018). Little account is known of the social and intellectual investments made by individuals to embed UDL principles into their curriculum. Although individual goals of investing in UDL are laudable it is still the environmental context that is key to successful implementation of UDL in the classroom (Xie & Rice, 2020). Indeed some authors have argued that it is the physical design of the higher education facility that leads to a more promising perspective for the promotion of inclusive education than curriculum adaptations do (Bel et al, 2012). There is ample evidence to suggest that both approaches are of importance to accessibility in higher education but neither can be done in isolation of the other. Design of the university environment should complement and facilitate UDL and not be left to instructors invested in the beliefs of UDL to enhance student access and engagement for those with disabilities (Ferguson et al, 2019).

Visual: Conceptual Framework of the Campus Design

The conceptual framework for the campus design is rooted in the principles of universal design, aiming to create spaces that are accessible, intuitive, and welcoming to all. Using Burgstahler (2015) concepts of Universal Design in Higher Education offers comprehensive guidance on applying universal design in educational settings, supporting this project's emphasis on creating inclusive learning environments.

By weaving together theoretical insights and practical applications, this project exemplifies the potential of academic initiatives to drive meaningful change in higher education accessibility. The integration of peer-reviewed references throughout underscores the project's alignment with current research and best practices in the field. The descriptions of key areas incorporate insights from peer-reviewed sources, emphasising the project's commitment to evidence-based to achieve an inclusive design.

Below are some descriptions that students presented to the design team based on their feedback and course content on a module of disability studies on their programme in social care. Here we initially used these descriptions as a prompt engineering tool to create some AI generated visuals that were dispensed to the architect and design academics to use to sketch and generate a 3D printout of examples of sections of a proposed potential university campus. We have responded to these with some real-life examples of good university designs from across the world as seen in the sequence of sketches.

Point of Entry and Reception Desk - AI-generated image 

AI Generated concept image of a Point of Entry and Reception Desk

Reception area with split-level desk and audio loop signage

Image source: Martin Schubert: House of Disabled People's Organization: An interesting project that hosts a number of different disability advocacy organisations in Denmark.

Example entryway for a building

Image source: Competition Winner - Hall McKnight

Entry space, building is readable as the various facilities open into this entrance/social space. Promotes way-finding.

Open ground floor reception area in a building

Image source: Andreas Meichsner

Open, bright, reception area in a building

Image source: Mike Huisman

Aalto University Vare building by Verstas Architects - both images, different areas. Building reveals itself. Reception has good lighting, no reflective surfaces behind the desk. 

The entrance of the university should serve as a welcoming gateway that is accessible and intuitive for all, including those with physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities. The design could incorporate wide, automatic doors with tactile and visual cues leading up to a spacious, well-lit reception area. The reception desk of varying heights to accommodate standing and seated positions, with built-in induction loops for those with hearing aids and digital displays for visual communication. The space around the room could allow for unobstructed movement, including wheelchair-turning circles. Natural lighting and materials for a warm, inviting atmosphere, while signage includes braille and high-contrast visuals to guide visitors effectively.

Coffee Shop Area and Canteen - AI-generated image based on a description 

Image generated by AI based on prompt given by social care students, for a cafe

Architect's sketch for a bright, open space in a university

Image source: O'Donnell-Tuomey

These designs give a suggestion of the type of loose descriptions of spaces. Lots of light, visual connections, use of dropped ceiling over a circulation route to create an acoustic way-finding opportunity.

This area could combine functionality with social inclusivity, featuring adjustable tables and seating options to accommodate various needs, including spaces for wheelchair users and low-stimulation areas for individuals with sensory sensitivities. Visual, tactile, and auditory cues help navigate the space, with menus available in braille, large print, and digital formats. The design could emphasise natural lighting and acoustically treated areas to reduce background noise, facilitating easier communication for individuals with hearing impairments. A vibrant but calming colour palette to stimulate the senses without overwhelming, creating an inviting environment for all. 


Image generated by AI based on prompts given by the social care students, depicting a bathroom

Architect's sketch of a universally designed bathroom design plan

Image source: Stalled.Online - Gallaudet Prototype - AI-generated image 

The restroom facilities should prioritise privacy, safety, and accessibility. Each stall should be spacious, equipped with adjustable supports, and offer both seated and standing options for diverse physical needs. Non-slip flooring, high-contrast signage, and tactile guides ensure safety and ease of navigation for individuals with visual impairments. Gender-neutral restrooms should accommodate the needs of all genders, with dedicated spaces for family care, including changing facilities and areas for breastfeeding, underscoring the campus's commitment to inclusivity. 

Lecture Rooms

Image generated by AI based on prompts given by the social care students, depicting a Lecture Hall

AI-generated image

Open area with people sitting at desks studying

Liverpool University Image Source: O'Donnell-Tuomey 

This is where we get into a contradiction between sensible design and interesting imagery, and the drive for spatial complexity. Interesting spaces, different zones in one space to support different levels of intimacy and lighting. 

View of a live/work space

Competition entry from MASS for Gallaudet   Image Source: MASS Design Group  

Lecture rooms designed with flexibility and inclusivity at their core, featuring movable seating to accommodate wheelchairs and assistive devices, as well as designated spaces for service animals like guide dogs. Advanced audio-visual equipment, including hearing loops, captioning services, and visual aids, supports diverse learning needs. Lighting is adjustable to cater to different visual requirements, and acoustics finely tuned to minimise echoes and background noise, aiding concentration. The layout should encourage interaction and participation from all students, ensuring an equitable learning environment. 

Accessible Library and IT Spaces

Image depicting a library, generated by AI based on prompts given by the social care students

AI generated image

Both images below from the Aalto University Harald Herlin Learning Centre in Finland. Low level prioritised for access. Lit well, subtle contrasts. Priority given to open plan, to make it clear what is in different spaces. Hence low units, easy to see over (easy to access). 

Open, bright, library space

Image source: ArchDaily - Aalto University, Finland

Alternative view of the previous space; bright, open, library area, with people sitting in low chairs, reading and chatting

Image source: ArchDaily - Aalto University, Finland

The library and IT areas are hubs of innovation and accessibility, with adjustable furniture, technology stations equipped for various disabilities (including screen readers and voice recognition software), and areas designed for group and individual study. Tactile paths and clear, high-contrast signage guide users through different zones, while quiet areas accommodate those needing reduced sensory input. The design should incorporate natural elements and ample light to create a stimulating yet comfortable environment for study and collaboration. Specialised resources and staff training, making these spaces inclusive. 

Recommendations for Future Research and Implementation

Implementing these projects across diverse educational settings could provide valuable insights into the scalability and adaptability of inclusive design principles. Future research should explore the longitudinal impact of similar projects on campus design and disability policy in higher education.

In a seminal article Heylighen (2014) highlights that understanding disability as originating in the interaction between features of an individual's body and features of his/her environment, as universal design does, implies that rehabilitation specialists need to consider the context in which a person lives. This project set out to consider these exact gaps by understanding the interaction of body and space and design to the needs of people with a disability. 

Nigel Cross suggests that design 
‘needs more research and enquiry: first into the ‘designerly' ways of knowing; second into the scope, limits and nature of innate cognitive abilities relevant to design.’ (1982:226)

Therefore Heylighen (2014) concludes that designers do not have direct access to the perspective of the people they design for including disability and therefore this project attempts to bridge this gap by offering the design process a perspective that they have been rarely called to analyse. Similarly, academia and the University may not have meaningfully engaged with this perspective either - therefore the social sciences acts as this ‘bridge’ in closing this communication gap and opening up an opportunity for this feedback loop to be created by engaging with concepts and idea of universal design. 

Therefore assessing whether a design is universally accessible may benefit from expertise not only from architecture, design and rehabilitation specialists but indeed from the social science realm and more importantly the voices of those with the specific disabilities. This project hopes to offer something to those in design and social care programmes as a study on the value of integrating universal design in their own and intersected pedagogical perspectives. Finally, it hopes to illuminate the value of meaningful and real consultation with people with disabilities to inform the ‘designerly’ ways of knowing. 

Conclusion and Reflections on Project Significance

This ‘Big Life Fix’ project exemplifies how academic initiatives can significantly contribute to reducing inequality in higher education through innovative, practical projects. The collaborative design process not only enhanced students’ understanding of disability issues but also served as a model for incorporating universal design principles into higher education environments. This project underscores the importance of interdisciplinary approaches in addressing societal challenges and fostering inclusive communities.

The outcomes of this project highlight the educational advancements in understanding and empathy towards disability issues, supported by Silverman and Gwinn’s (2017) research on empathy and inclusion. The interdisciplinary collaboration and application of universal design principles not only fostered an inclusive design mindset among students but also aimed to influence higher education policy and campus design, resonating with Imrie’s (2012) advocacy for equitable access. Imrie's discussion on universal design and equitable access highlights the project's potential to influence policy and practice in higher education. By demonstrating the feasibility and benefits of inclusive campus design, the project aligns with Imrie's call for universalism in the built environment, advocating for systemic change in how educational spaces are conceived.

Although this was a conceptual project with high aspirations it is proposed that this project also offers a real possibility. A possibility for a new, unique, state of the art university campus design that meets the needs of everyone, that opens doors and possibilities to those that never had one before. 

To conclude it is important to stress the transformative potential of inclusive design in higher education.The 'Big Life Fix' project represents a hope for the future to be a beacon of change and for a collective shift in perspective among universities and government bodies. By adapting to the needs of people with disabilities, we can foster an environment that not only facilitates universal design for learning (UDL), but also cultivates a culture of inclusivity. This shift goes beyond mere physical adjustments; it's about changing the very ethos of higher education to one where diversity is not just accepted but celebrated.

As we envision a future where university campuses are built with the principles of universal design at their core, we must advocate for policies and practices that recognise the value of every individual's contribution to the academic community. Through concerted efforts, we can transform higher education into a space that inspires acceptance, inclusion, and the recognition that being different is not just okay but a vital aspect of our collective humanity. This paradigm shift is not only a moral imperative but a practical necessity for creating truly inclusive educational environments that empower all students to achieve their fullest potential. This shift is essential not only for equity and justice but for enriching the entire educational community and society at large. This approach not only aligns with ethical imperatives but also prepares all students for a diverse and inclusive world.


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