Why Designing Architecturally for the Deaf is the Best Thing Hearing People Can Do for Themselves

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Would you be able to walk into a building and say, “Wow, I’m digging the DeafSpace situation going on in the architectural layout! Nice!”

Even if you were a hearing person and informed enough to recognize an intentionally deaf-friendly space, even if you were an architect nerd, even if this were the future and you’d already read this article, nobody talks like that, so you probably still wouldn’t say that.

But that’s not the point.

The point is, and what many labeled a part of the disabled community want to drive home is this: they aren’t looking for a bunch of ways to make them stand out further. It’s not about accommodating. It’s about challenging everyone to make better spaces period. And that’s exactly why I’d like to introduce you to DeafSpace – a design concept that benefits both the deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing communities.

Looking for a building that FEELS deaf friendly.

The husband half comes across a house he likes and shares it with his wife. She agrees, its lovely. Their favorite features are that it has fewer walls, giving it a roomier feel, and the windows let in lots of light. They love it, they buy it. They later discover that the architect responsible for their home was the deaf architect Olof Hansen. Even though they didn’t look for houses labeled ‘best homes for deaf, (because that’s not really a thing you can do), the house felt deaf-friendly to them. (The source of this example can be found here.) Are you still with me?

Harvard and Gallaudet University are two dignified and prestigious educational facilities. What separates them from other universities is that Gallaudet, in Washington D.C. is a leading specialized school to nearly 2,000 deaf and hard of hearing students. Both campuses outwardly serve the same objective in education. But inwardly they meet those needs in different ways – spatially and tacitly.

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Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Boy did he hit the nail on that one. How we create and interact within spaces is unique, architecture is a key representation of culture manifest in physicality.  To explore a culture and its habitats you can glean plenty from observing the space they occupy, and how.

Language has elements of architecture, deaf culture is centered on the spatial kinesthetic of sign language.

The fact that they inhabit a rich sensory world where vision and touch are their primary means of spatial awareness and orientation, translates to the need  to have constant visual access in such a way that open space best lends itself to. Our built environment is largely constructed by and for the hearing population. The hearing population is the majority. So while not  surprising, is does presents a variety of challenges that deaf people have to continuously respond to by altering their surroundings. Spaces designed for the hearing for example, can produce a certain amount of anxiety for those who cannot hear – they can’t ever hear the footsteps from around the corner or behind.

How  would you feel if you couldn’t anticipate who or what was around you the majority of the time?

And that’s just one instance of their daily life experiences.

Here’s another. When any group of people get together they subconsciously place themselves to allow for conversation. It’s no different for the deaf, but their need for completely clear sightlines is significantly different. Conversations in deaf group settings take more of their surrounding into account, it’s not just where they sit down, or position their body. There is furniture rearranging, the adjusting of window shades, lighting and seating, the movement that may look more like dancing if they’re attempting to walk and talk for instance—going through a doorway, one person spins in place and walks backwards to keep the line of visual communication intact.

What does it mean for a space to be deaf-friendly?

DeafSpace is an architectural design concept of utilizing open space in a way that touches on major points within the deaf experience. It’s an idea that goes back over 100 years ago to Olof Hansen, believed to be one of America’s first deaf architects. (Hansen is behind the design of the Dawes House at Gallaudet University, as well as deaf clubhouses and state buildings across the country.)

In 2005, hearing architect Hansel Bauman (hbhm architects) partnered with the ASL Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University. Together they created the DeafSpace Project (DSP), an effort to re-think principles of architecture. Together they developed the DeafSpace Guidelines consisting of more than 150 design elements addressing five main problem areas for the deaf: space and proximity, sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics. Previously the practical acts of making a DeafSpace were just long-held adaptive behaviors never-before formally recognized as architectural expression.  The study of DeafSpace offers valuable insights about the interrelationship between the senses, the ways we construct the built environment and cultural identity from which society at large has much to learn.

Sensory Reach

Deaf people “read” the activities in their surroundings through acute sensitivity of visual and tactile cues such as the movement of shadows, vibrations, or even the reading of subtle shifts in the expression/position of others around them.

Spatial orientation and the awareness of activities within our surroundings are essential to maintaining a sense of well-being. 360 degree considerate design can facilitate orientation and wayfinding.

Space and Proximity

In order to maintain clear visual communication individuals stand at a distance where they can see facial expression and full dimension of the signer’s “signing space”.  This basic dimension of the space between people impacts the basic layout of furnishings and building spaces.

There space between two signers tends to be greater than that of a spoken conversation. As conversation groups grow in numbers the space between individuals increases to allow visual connection for all parties.

Mobility and Proximity

While walking together in conversation signers will tend to maintain a wide distance for clear visual communication.  The signers will also shift their gaze between the conversation and their surroundings scanning for hazards and maintaining proper direction.  If one senses the slightest hazard they alert their companion, adjust and continue without interruption.  The proper design of circulation and gathering spaces enable singers to move through space uninterrupted.

Lighting

If the Deaf person is trying to see someone signing to them and the light is behind the signer, it is not possible for them to see what is being signed. Well-placed lighting source will address that issue. Poor lighting conditions such as glare, shadow patterns, backlighting interrupt visual communication and are major contributors to the causes of eye fatigue that can lead to a loss of concentration and even physical exhaustion.Proper Electric lighting and architectural elements used to control daylight can be configured to provide a soft, diffused light “attuned to deaf eyes”.  Color can be used to contrast skin tone to highlight sign language and facilitate visual wayfinding.

Acoustics

Deaf individuals experience many different kinds and degrees of hearing levels.  Many use assistive devices such as hearing aids or cochlear implants to enhance sound. No matter the level of hearing, many deaf people sense sound in a way that can be a major distraction, especially for individuals with assistive hearing devices.  Reverberation caused by sound waves reflected by hard building surfaces can be especially distracting, even painful. Spaces should be designed to reduce reverberation and other sources of background noise.

(Source: DeafSpace Guidelines)

What does DeafSpace look like in design action?

DeafSpace looks like awareness and sensitivity. Here are just 10 examples of case in point:

  1. Partial walls, implied enclosures, and clear sliding doors – Deaf homeowners often cut new openings in walls, place mirrors and lights in strategic locations to extend their sensory awareness and maintain visual connection between family members. This can also be accomplished through designing partial walls that are less than floor-to-ceiling height, or using building materials such as clouded glass as an alternative to brick, concrete, or drywall to create rooms that afford privacy yet preserve a sense of openness. And a main stairway without walls or separations makes it easier for communication across floors. When designing homes for a hearing person, for example, the architect is conscious of the desire to create walls that enclose space, which translates into a feeling of security. But in performing the same task for a deaf person, for example, the architect needs to be cognizant of the desire for visual access, which means less walls, and in their place “implied enclosures.”
  1. Placement of windows – locate them so they produce diffused light, not glaring light
  2. Wooden floors – so banging can be felt from other rooms
  3. Select color choices – colors that reduce the wash-out effect and enhance natural skin tones make facial expressions more easily readable. And natural, even-toned light is at a premium.
  4. Curved corners verses right angled walls or sharp turns
  5. Open kitchen layout  – to be visually accessible to adjacent rooms
  6. Light switches –  positioned them outside bathroom and bedrooms
  7. Circular areas – make seeing others more comfortable
  8. Wide, non-white sidewalks – use of larger sidewalks outdoors accommodate people walking and signing to each other
  9. Paneled ceiling and acoustics blanket on the underside of concrete floors. The control of reverberations going through the building is important because bad acoustics can mess with hearing aids. But a paneled ceiling and acoustics blanket can make a conversation with someone in an open airy space feel as though they’re having an absolutely private conversation. (Can all office buildings have this? That would be greeeeeat.)

DeafSpace principles could easily be the basis for any architecture project, they mark the beginning of a more thoughtful design where the architecture meet compassionate and livable. And the principles just make sense. (If the part about the color choices of furniture for better conversations doesn’t alone stick with you I don’t know what will. When is the last time you learned something like that from HGTV or Better Homes and Garden?) Forget practical, more like necessary.

Matthew Malzkuhn, one of the students a part of the Deaf Space project at Gallaudet University has said, for him, “The Deaf Space project is just one more validation that being deaf is truly a great thing; that being a visual-tactile oriented member of a collectivist culture has something of value that can be shared with the world.”

Deaf Space = Deaf Gain. Ya heard?

Sources:

Writer and curator of interesting12, Maggie is a DC based writer with a heart for nonprofits, a passion for complicated people, and lover of all things well designed and well said. This former longtime LA resident is a firm believer we should be challenging ourselves to discuss what affect us in this world and how. She’s opinionated, a teller of both sides of the story, and some say she’s clever.