Is our very own space excluding some of us?

Within the next decade, we expect more traction to be gained on discussions at both the state and local government levels to include the concept of an enabling space that leaves no one behind.

“Navigating through space can feel like a mental work-out!”

This was Berta Brusilovsky Filer’s opening line in an exclusive interview with The Journal. An architect specialising in sensorial and cognitive accessibility, Filer is recognised for her work in the field of accessible design, particularly focusing on creating environments that are inclusive for people with various sensory and cognitive abilities.  Her work involves creating spaces and products that are accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability, or other factors.

Berta Brusilovsky Filer

What is sensorial and cognitive accessibility?

This refers to the design of environments, products, and services in ways that ensure they are usable and navigable by people with varying sensory (e.g. vision, hearing, touch, smell, proprioception) and cognitive (e.g. memory, attention, understanding) abilities.

Sensorial accessibility focuses on addressing the needs of individuals with sensory difficulties. Through considering particular elements of light, sound, smell and vestibular input, amongst others, the space can be made accessible for persons who might feel overwhelmed with certain set-ups.

Cognitive accessibility is concerned with designing environments and information in a way that supports the cognitive processes of users. This includes clear signage, avoiding overly complex instructions, and creating straightforward pathways in a building. The goal is to support people with cognitive disabilities, such as dementia, ADHD, or autism, ensuring they can understand, remember, and apply the information they encounter.

Berta Brusilovsky Filer’s Model

The seasoned architect created a model 12 years ago, as the final project for a Master’s degree in Universal Accessibility and Design for All at La Salle University in Madrid, Spain.

“Before this, I had already started to get very interested in this field, publishing several papers on the subject. In Spain, where I live, there was little understanding of how to create spaces that everyone, regardless of their sensory or cognitive differences, could access,” she tells The Journal.

Her work in studies, research, and projects highlights how important architecture and design are for both personal and community well-being, pointing out that our surroundings play a key role in our health. This work focuses on the idea that the spaces we share and the cultures we are part of are interconnected, which leads to the realisation that we need to incorporate this knowledge into laws, technical standards, and the education provided in fields related to health, engineering, architecture, and design.

Drawing from insights into how people experience the world differently, especially those with sensory and cognitive differences, she developed a new approach to creating accessible spaces.

The guiding principle moving forward is simple: “We are all neurodiverse.”

The universal principles of her model aim to make spaces easier to navigate and understand, focusing on reducing confusion and enhancing accessibility. Here’s a simplified explanation of each:

Neutralise the labyrinth effect

This means designing spaces in a way that avoids making them feel like a maze, which can be confusing and hard to navigate. The goal is to make it easier for everyone to find their way around.

Ensure clarity at junctions and crossroads

When paths cross or intersect, it’s important to make these areas clear and straightforward to prevent people from getting lost or disoriented.

Remove distractions

This involves getting rid of anything in the design that could make it hard for someone to pay attention, remember things, stay alert, or be vigilant. These distractions can make it difficult for people to use the space effectively.

Use clear signage

By using simple texts, pictures, and numbers that are easy to understand, and making sure these signs are specific to each area, people can find their way more easily. This helps everyone, regardless of their cognitive abilities, to navigate through the space.

Design seamless transitions

This principle focuses on making sure there are no abrupt changes or confusing elements in the design that could disrupt someone’s ability to follow along or understand the layout. It aims to support cognitive functions such as attention and emotion management by providing a smooth, uninterrupted experience.

In essence, these principles guide the creation of spaces that are welcoming and accessible to all, reducing barriers that might prevent people from fully engaging with their surroundings.

Berta Brusilovsky Filer’s take on Malta

The Spanish architect is in Malta on an initiative spearheaded by Aġenzija Sapport, co-funded by the European Union. As part of her engagements here, she held coordinated meetings with various professionals about current projects and a public workshop at the University of Malta.  

We ask her what she thinks of the Maltese islands in terms of cognitive and sensorial accessibility. She radiates energy and confidence in her demeanor, yet she remains profoundly humble and kind-hearted and is extremely cautious about making comments that might be construed as negative.

When we further encourage her to share her thoughts, especially under the assurance that the intent is to learn from her expertise, she tells us that she has certainly observed that our streets are bustling with activities, cars, and unfortunately, lack adequate walking paths.

She feels that, from what she has seen, Malta’s typical city-core layout does not sufficiently accommodate those in need of assistance. There’s a pressing need for more spaces conducive to community interaction, like playgrounds, to foster connections among residents.

“This issue could be addressed through a thorough examination to effectively enhance each area and neighbourhood and find tailored solutions to make them more welcoming and accessible,” advises Berta Brusilovsky.

Meanwhile, she is surrounded by team-workers from Aġenzija Sapport, including Director Maria Cynthia Debono, who gives us really tangible examples.

“Think of the different supermarkets on the island… apart from the financial element, I’m sure that the way that they are set up leads us to prefer one supermarket over another. We can also recall ourselves manoeuvring through university or Mater Dei the first time we visited these places.

Have you ever been in a place where you felt anxious navigating through it, maybe not being able to understand the signage, if there was any feeling of claustrophobia because of the lack of natural light? We can reflect on these experiences of spaces through the concept of cognitive and sensorial accessibility or the lack of such accessibility.”

Paving the way inclusively

Aġenzija Sapport has managed to make a strong call for more consideration of the concept of accessibility when it comes to urban planning and design methods. They are also making a strong case for future projects to listen to persons with sensory and cognitive disabilities, understand their needs and ultimately support their active participation in community life through the built environment.

Their call is clear: we need to pave the way for future changes. Within the next decade, we expect more traction to be gained on discussions at both the state and local government levels to include the concept of an enabling space that leaves no one behind.

Read more about Berta Brusilovsky’s methodology by clicking on the ‘accessibility’ section here.

Main photo: Mike Chai

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