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18.02.2022 - Ausgabe: 1/2022

Inclusion is participation: Participatory forms of planning with people with disabilities

By Professor Sonja Hörster (Institute for Participatory Design GmbH)

© www.partizipativ-gestalten.de

If it was matter of course that people with their individual abilities and limitations could freely participate in shaping their own living environment and everyday life, there would be no need for special inclusion projects or literature on this subject.

Each subject area looks at a topic from a specific perspective. In the field of spatial planning – i.e. architecture, open space planning or even interior design - inclusion is often equated with the topic of "accessibility". Barrier-free spaces are understood as open spaces and buildings which are designed and created by specialist planners in their offices. However, can such planning be considered inclusive?

When designing spaces, the focus should be on the question of what constitutes the quality of a space. Planners usually look for design solutions that contribute to people feeling alive in the designed space, a design which enables them to develop their own potential. Places where limitations are not considered a problem but an individual characteristic; where all people are part of these spaces.

In our case, too, it was the lack of accessibility that has inspired us to work intensively on the issue of inclusion. In our project "Gut Sannum - Freiraum für Alle!" (Sannum Estate - Open Space for All) we were lucky to get involved in a participatory design process far beyond the original task, thanks to the openness of the facility management. Instead of just jointly designing barrier-free open spaces, people with all their limitations and abilities worked together over several years – as if it was the most natural thing - to create a place that is now known throughout the district as a valued place of excursions.


The power of the building

Barriers in one’s head, barriers in space

As is the case in Sannum, many people with physical, mental or psychological disabilities are still characterised by and associated with special institutions in their everyday lives in Germany. For example, people with disabilities live in homes for the disabled, learn in special schools and work in special workshops.

Institutions for people with disabilities are often relatively closed systems and are also perceived as such "from outside". There is too little exchange between these institutions or the people for whom they were created and the public.

In addition to providing outpatient care for people with disabilities, which is aimed at increasing inclusive care, many special residential facilities are increasingly asking themselves how to increase their openness to fulfil the desire for more inclusion.

Looking at the relative continuity of the systematic exclusion of people with disabilities in the history of the last centuries, the past 70 years have seen an intensive process of rethinking on the topic of disability. After a long phase of exclusion and the subsequent demand for integration of people with disabilities into the "normal society", our social knowledge today is that the basis of any society is diversity, which should be lived in everyday life with everyone. Disability is no longer a purely individual phenomenon, but only emerges in combination with structural and mental barriers in our minds. Be it inclusion or conversion, the goal is the same: How can we break down the barriers in our minds so that we all feel that we belong to this society as a matter of course and are in fact part of it?

These days, we wonder how it is possible that even facilities for the disabled are sometimes inaccessible. In addition to the lack of accessibility, many facilities have the charm of a hospital and the quality of a homely atmosphere is completely lacking. Due to the fact that the atmosphere is often not very attractive, outsiders hardly find any opportunities to connect with the world inside the facility. What becomes clear here is that thinking norms of the past express themselves in our building environment. The world as we once thought of, determines many of the spaces in which we spend time today and which shape our lives. Our buildings and our open spaces mostly originate from a time that does not correspond to our current desire to be an inclusive society. So the task of redesigning buildings and open spaces holds the great opportunity to give shape to new ways of thinking and thereby also promote inclusive behaviour.


Sannum Estate - Open Space for All

A planning workshop that provided unexpected ideas

The facility of the Gertrudenheim Foundation, which is situated in a charming landscape in Sannum on the edge of the Wildeshauser Geest, suffered from its lack of accessibility and the predominating charm of a very old-fashioned place. The facility - at that time still called "Haus Sannum" - is a residential home and work place for 120 adult people with mental, emotional or multiple disabilities.

In autumn 2010, we held a 3.5-day planning workshop here to redesign the open spaces with 22 residents, staff, the management of the facility and the management of the local association. The idea came up during a joint exploration tour of the grounds. A visit to the summer festival had inspired us to approach the director of the facility.

However, our proposal to hold a participatory planning workshop together with all representatives involved, was received with enthusiasm. The first two days during the planning workshop we jointly learned as a group to see Sannum from different perspectives both of the parties involved and from the planning perspective. We showed each other our favourite places, went on observation walks and worked on design tasks that seemed relevant to us as a group. It proved to be very helpful to look at Sannum from the different perspectives of all parties involved, such as from the perspective of people with disabilities, staff, animals as well as tourists, most of whom passing by on their bikes.

After two days of joint exploration of the place and the facilities, we were all guided by the desire to awaken Sannum from its somewhat dusty slumber and to make its potential quality more visible for all those who live and work in Sannum as well as for all those who visit Sannum. This went far beyond the original intention of the planning workshop to work on the accessibility of the outdoor facilities. However, we decided to look together for a motto that would express the quality of Sannum.

The search for a motto began with the exchange and collection of all the words and suggestions coming into our minds. This process was both very tough and difficult at the same time. Little by little we approached the core of what we had perceived as essential during the past two days (and two nights) in the exploration of Sannum as a place and a facility. The concepts gradually evolved. The motto "Sannum Estate - a place for everyone" seemed to be the most appropriate of all the suggestions. But something was still not right, the group did not seem really satisfied yet. The atmosphere was still tense, the work exhausting. Only after the suggestion was made to replace the word "place" with "open space", so that the resulting motto was "Gut Sannum - Freiraum für Alle" (Sannum Estate - Open Space for All), all were relieved and satisfied. Suddenly everybody began to laugh again, side conversations began to develop, coffee was refilled, the toilet was visited. The breakthrough was achieved and everyone wanted to get back to work quickly. However, the right motto had finally been found.

The planning work, which then began, took place in a working mode that could be described as exiting and euphoric. Planning groups were formed according to their interests, which dealt with various sub-areas such as the courtyards, the garden, the paths, but also the overall concept as such. In the planning groups, it was no longer important whether one was a planner, a staff member, a resident or a manager. The findings gained from this work process formed the basis for the overall concept, which was then developed and put into practice by our planning office on a professional basis. However, the overall concept enabled us, together with the provider and the facility, to acquire funding in the high six-figure range over the following four years and thus to implement the concept to a large extent and initiate further projects.


Two sides of the same coin: Design and process belong together

The experiences we made in Sannum led to a simple realisation: Inclusion is created through inclusion. Inclusive and living spaces emerge through inclusive, living processes. Participatory forms of planning in which all interested stakeholders with their respective skills, knowledge and perspectives are involved to contribute to a solution, are a suitable form of work.

Inclusive processes must provide the impetus for changes in attitudes and structural measures at the same time. In this way, they lead to a better quality of life. Participants experience themselves as part of a joint development process in their self-efficacy, experience the results of the construction and the resulting effect of greater accessibility and inclusion.

Due to the planning workshop in Sannum and the motto, "Gut Sannum - Freiraum für Alle!", which is both multi-faceted, very simple and easy to understand, a process has been set in motion which continues up to this day. A process that sharpens the understanding of inclusion through inclusion, that accepts intermediate states, allows for the imperfect, defines things anew and shifts boundaries. However, it clearly shows what inclusion means in practice.

The structural opening of the open spaces has led to increased contact with tourists cycling by, tourists who visit Café Sannum, take a walk in the sunken garden or explore the nature discovery trail. Together with Gut Sannum, the municipality organises festivals on the farm which is now open to the public. Contact between visitors and Sannum residents has become more natural.

Over the past few years, some of the participants from the institution have become more self-confident. As an example, one of the participants said that after the redesign many of them have perceived that appreciation for Sannum has increased significantly, something he has not experienced in such a way in the past 20 years. One young man who had taken part in all the workshops and building activities experienced such an increase in self-confidence that he spoke about his experiences on stage in front of the 250 guests, who were invited to the opening ceremony.

Experiencing one's own self-efficacy could be achieved in different ways. For example, some of the residents developed in various workshops, organised by our planning office, their own planning concepts for open spaces, barrier-free orientation systems for Sannum or the nature discovery trail. While others, encouraged by the welcoming atmosphere during the construction phases, began to co-operate with the contracted construction company. They were kindly introduced to the construction team and learned, for example, various paving techniques through practical demonstrations, which, due to their use, they have since been able to perceive and proudly present in a more conscious way.

The playground in the courtyard was also built by a construction team of professionals, residents and staff in ten days. The great enjoyment of this work resulted in the construction team growing steadily and, in the end even reaching the limits of its capacity. The playground, which allows the children of the visitors to play in the courtyard, is an invitation to get into contact with each other and at the same time a real proof of a joint process in which the shared experience and the result played a major role, as did the personal competence that was contributed by everybody involved.

The motto "Gut Sannum - Freiraum für alle!" (Sannum Estate - Open Space for All) revealed a quality that has been apparent in Sannum for over a hundred years. Instead of further emphasising the furnishing aspect, which was highlighted with the name "Haus Sannum", attention was drawn to the estate, which had already been agricultural many years before. And this idea is still true today: here a large community works and lives in a place that provides a variety of opportunities for a healthy, active and varied life through gardening, farming, crafts and contact with nature. The addition "Freiraum für Alle" (free open spaces for all) focuses on Sannum as a place of encounter, companionship and personal development, according to the individual abilities and possibilities of each one of them. For people with and without disabilities and for people of all ages.

In this way, the realisation of the inclusive idea has been expressed. A process was set in motion that no one had expected at the beginning of this project. As the motto was found to be appropriate by all who heard about it, the facility could be officially renamed only after a few weeks. That is how House Sannum" became "Gut Sannum - Freiraum für Alle!


Eagles do not climb stairs - participatory forms of planning

Participatory processes can be more or less inclusive and thus enable very different degrees of participation. The format and methods determine which participants with which skills and competences can take part. It is the inclusion of everyone, based on a context-related process design, which determines the participatory quality of the respective process.

Work formats that focus primarily on one method exclude all those who are not good at that method. For example, people whose strength is not in the communication field, find it difficult to participate in events focusing on verbal interaction. From this perspective, participation in the form of round tables or other dialogue events are unsuitable formats.

Beyond "listening" and "talking to each other", participation can be organised collaboratively, i.e. as " teamwork". Planning and design workshops should better involve participants with different expertise and experience. Jointly developed plans, drafts and concepts emerge as concrete and realisable solutions for the respective task. Here, too, there are phases during which participants are informed or they can participate in dialogue. Beyond that, however, there are levels that do not only function on a verbal basis, such as drawing and painting, walking outside, collecting and observing impressions, building models, creating something with different materials or simply being there and having an effect through being present. Many times, we have experienced that something was expressed solely through the body language of a participant providing an attentive observer or even the whole group with unexpected ideas.

Just as we as humans look at one and the same thing from different perspectives, we also need different approaches to be able to contribute to the solution of a problem. While some of us like to reflect or gain new inspiration through investigation, others like to draw or record impressions directly, e.g. by intuition or imagination. On their own, they only get a limited impression. In the multi-perspective exchange of these experiences, hints gradually condense towards a solution that everyone agrees with.

This form of cooperation is the most intensive form of participation. It accepts and works simultaneously on both the linguistic, sensory, emotional and creative levels. It recognises that spaces cannot be explored exclusively in dialogue, factually or technically, but consist of many aspects in their entirety: Structures, elements, materials, textures, stories, people, animals, plants and recurring events. All this gives rise to a spatial context, to a specific field.

This field can be explored, understood and intuitively grasped in its complexity and can also be changed together. It expresses itself in the atmosphere on site, which we can describe and which we perceive as more or less positive or even lively.

All people can actively participate in processes that take into account the different aspects of the context and are therefore also designed for different levels.


Built space: an expression of attitude

The idea of an inclusive society must be tested in many places on a practical and everyday basis. This is a difficult and also time-consuming process. Participation, understood as a joint participation process, is in itself an inclusive form of how objects, rooms or processes can be planned.

Designing places plays an important role in this. It is a basic question of how spaces can be conceptually and materially designed to be barrier-free in order to allow public accessibility for everybody. Designing environments for people with very different participation needs is not about expanding a catalogue of standards and then putting them into practice. It is rather about saying goodbye to the image of a user who can be thought of in a standardised way and to design with the idea of diversity in mind. 

People who deviate from the norm in everyday life are often considered "disabled" if he or she is classified without reflection - a view that is still very widespread despite appropriate education. Participation processes in which people from different backgrounds can work together on a task and diversity is understood as a potential, do not only contribute to removing structural barriers. They also help to remove barriers in the mind through practical experience. This is fun, strengthens the empowerment of the people involved and promotes the discovery of overlapping common interests. Inclusive participation thus not only produces coherent results, but also promotes structural changes on the way to a barrier-free civil society.

In Sannum, this change is not only visible in the buildings. The openness can be felt and is reflected in the high number of visitors who appreciate the sunken garden, the café, the farm, the hiking trails and the farm products. The public recognition and perception by the community and tourists is enormous and delights us all. The attitude of recognising and appreciating otherness as a natural part of life invites people to relax in their own otherness - to explore their own free space, to show a bit more than elsewhere. This is an attractive quality. As the Sannum gardener recently said, "Aren't we all a bit Sannum?" Let's hope so!



Stephani, V.: Design for ability. Behinderung, Inklusion und Partizipation.

(Disability, inclusion and participation).

Unpublished diploma thesis in product design. Bauhaus University of Weimar. Weimar 2012.



Sonja Hörster, Graduate engineer (university of applied sciences), Landscape Architect. Co-founder and Managing Director of the Institute for Participatory Design (German abbreviation: IPG). Sonja Hörster has been working for more than 20 years as a planner, moderator and facilitator of participatory design processes in the thematic field of spatial planning. Since 2010 she has accompanied her team to support various welfare institutions in the inclusive development and implementation of holistic and barrier-free overall concepts.

Contact: s.hoerster@partizipativ-gestalten.de



This article is part of the anthology:

Öffentliche Sozialplanung und die Freie Wohlfahrtspflege

(Public social planning and the non-statutory welfare sector)

Edited by Prof. Dr Andreas Strunk

Nomos, 2016, 234 pages, paperback

ISBN 978-3-8487-0813-0



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