Design for the Blind


DENNIS KOWAL ARCHITECTS has been designing for the blind, physically handicapped, handicapped, autistic, developmentally disabled, and learning disabled for 30 years and their completed work creates a friendly environment without shouting “special needs”. "I learned a long time ago that blindness for most is just a characteristic like short or tall and it comes with its own challenges and limitations; but it is not necessarily a disability” says Dennis Kowal about his experiences with the many blind professionals who conduct rather normal lives.   The majority of the visually impaired get around without a white cane (less than 35% use a cane) or a guide dog (less than 3% use a guide dog).   As a person ages, there is a one in ten chance of major vision loss but then their needs may be different as they may no longer drive, go to school or work.

At the National Headquarters of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), Dennis's design was based on orthogonal geometry, the easiest navigation system. Curves can disorient whereas ninety degree turns are easier to follow for someone with no vision. That same person  composes a picture of the space from sensing the perimeter as opposed to walking into the middle and looking around as a sighted person might.  Therefore, the placement of furniture and removing obstacles at the perimeter became important to the design process.  Finally, acoustics also help compose the picture.  Large volumes sound different than small spaces or lower ceilings.  And just as too many colors is garish for the sighted, too many sounds can be annoying to the visually impaired.

Cleanly designed edges with the minimum of obstacles are friendly to both the sighted and unsighted.


Cleanly designed edges with the minimum of obstacles are friendly to both the sighted and unsighted.

The visually impaired enjoy the same things as everyone else;  fresh air, the warmth of the sun on their face,  and a glare-free environment. Mechanical shades reduce glare and control the natural light in this lobby.


The visually impaired enjoy the same things as everyone else;  fresh air, the warmth of the sun on their face,  and a glare-free environment. Mechanical shades reduce glare and control the natural light in this lobby.

Since many will enjoy the cafeteria, a connection to the beautiful site through full height windows can still be enjoyed by many. Overhangs and the nearby woods itself provide natural shading and sound panels in the ceiling control noise. 


Since many will enjoy the cafeteria, a connection to the beautiful site through full height windows can still be enjoyed by many. Overhangs and the nearby woods itself provide natural shading and sound panels in the ceiling control noise. 

Operable windows bring in fresh air to the office area and exterior shading devices allow  Daylight to brighten the interior without glare.


Operable windows bring in fresh air to the office area and exterior shading devices allow  Daylight to brighten the interior without glare.

The wetlands were protected by separating the building from the parking lot with this boardwalk through the woods. Both the sighted and unsighted enjoy a walk in the woods and the wide berth allows guide dogs to pass.


The wetlands were protected by separating the building from the parking lot with this boardwalk through the woods. Both the sighted and unsighted enjoy a walk in the woods and the wide berth allows guide dogs to pass.

The building wall embraces an outdoor eating area providing a sense of enclosure with the freedom of a wall-less room.


The building wall embraces an outdoor eating area providing a sense of enclosure with the freedom of a wall-less room.

The bottom line is always the happiness of the occupants even in the processing areas where books on tape are distributed across the nation to the visually impaired.


The bottom line is always the happiness of the occupants even in the processing areas where books on tape are distributed across the nation to the visually impaired.

This 83,000-volume Master Tape Library is the largest educational resource of its kind in the world and Dennis designed three continuous movable shelving systems to handle the product. These 12’ tall carousels are 80’ long and rotate by computer signal to bring the selected audio master tape to an operator for duplicating.


This 83,000-volume Master Tape Library is the largest educational resource of its kind in the world and Dennis designed three continuous movable shelving systems to handle the product. These 12’ tall carousels are 80’ long and rotate by computer signal to bring the selected audio master tape to an operator for duplicating.

DKA created custom designed conveyor systems that recognize specific tapes and automatically distribute them.

DENNIS KOWAL ARCHITECTS designs for the blind, dyslexic and physically handicapped.

Designing for Adults with Autism


The master plan for housing adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder includes 24 individual units, a recreation building, administrative offices and clinic. 

Special needs providers sometimes differ on the approach to designing for those who are visually impaired, autistic, deaf, disabled, or otherwise atypical. On the one hand, if you create an environment that is so special and customized, you risk making the individual dependent on the building and send the wrong message to society that this person can’t function without “crutches”. On the other hand, if you say the best policy is to ask the individual to adapt to any building situation without changing the current building norms, you do no service to those with limited adaptation skills and you don’t advance the design practice as a whole. Unfortunately, I have been in the middle of this argument many times by the various representative constituent groups I bring together for design retreats at the outset of a new special needs building design. It has been our firm’s skill at walking this fine line that has led to our acceptance in the special needs community as an advocate and friend.If a building is a training center or rehabilitation center, then a variety of building experiences with various levels of customization are in order. In this way, the training center can prepare an individual for any level of outside world experience.  
If the building is a permanent residence, then more customization can contribute to an improved daily experience.  For example, in our design for a residence of Adults with Autism, the users told us that the two most important considerations for them were light and sound.  While Autism is complex and can’t be narrowed down to two senses, it is sometimes helpful to at least address the most significant requests of the users.   The Autistic often can’t separate stimuli such as the background noise of an exhaust fan from music on the radio.  The overload would be comparable to trying to hear your cell phone while standing on the yellow line in the middle of a six lane highway.  Your only thought might be “Just get me out of here!”  So a place to retreat from too much light, too many sounds, or any overload, is not a crutch as much as a necessity.

A gazebo serves as a focal point for the therapy flower gardens and a place for informal peer interaction.  The arrival experience is much like any of the estates in the area.


A gazebo serves as a focal point for the therapy flower gardens and a place for informal peer interaction.  The arrival experience is much like any of the estates in the area.

Understanding the mind of the those who are developmentally disabled or have Autistic Spectrum Disorder requires letting go of preconceptions, re-thinking common design practices, and being guided by the needs of the user.


Understanding the mind of the those who are developmentally disabled or have Autistic Spectrum Disorder requires letting go of preconceptions, re-thinking common design practices, and being guided by the needs of the user.

Many of the features of the design for ASD and DD are concealed in the construction. For example, multiple lighting levels, operable drapes, sound partitions, remote exhaust fan motors,  and  safely designed built-in furniture are developed as the design progresses.

DENNIS KOWAL ARCHITECTS  designs for those with special needs.