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Designing a City for the Deaf

Most cities aren’t designed for deaf people. Sidewalks are frequently too narrow or too crowded for deaf persons engaged in a conversation that requires so-called “signing space.” Public benches are often set in rows or squares, limiting the ability of the deaf to create the “conversation circles” and open sight lines that they require. Urban landscapes are so visually stimulating that they hinder communication among people who rely on visual cues. And light fixtures may be too dim or shine directly into signers’ eyes.

These things don’t just make a deaf person’s life more challenging; they can make it dangerous. In January, three deaf people were struck by a vehicle and seriously injured in Olathe, Kansas*, as they left a deaf cultural event. The same thing happened to a deaf man last year in Sacramento.

In 2009, Deaf411, a public relations firm serving the deaf community, released a report on Deaf-Friendly Cities in the U.S., saluting places like Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Raleigh, and Denver for their efforts to accommodate the deaf or hard of hearing. But for every city on the list, countless others—including San Francisco, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Philadelphia—did not make the cut.

Now Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation’s leading institution for the deaf and hard of hearing, has produced a set of so-called DeafSpace Guidelines that address those aspects of the urban environment that inhibit communication and mobility among those who communicate with their hands. In doing so, architects and design researchers have used technology to gather information on how deaf people use public spaces and modify them to meet their needs. Campus officials say that the guidelines have already begun a dialogue that they hope will have an impact on urban development nationwide.

“The clarity with which a deaf person communicates relates to the clarity and clutter of what’s around them,” says Hansel Bauman, director of campus design and planning at Gallaudet, who led the multiyear effort to create the DeafSpace Guidelines. “Space becomes an essential part of how you communicate.”

Through a series of university courses, Bauman worked with Gallaudet faculty, students, staff, and others to research and codify how deaf and hard of hearing people use public spaces. The resulting document details five major elements involved in deaf interactions with the built environment, including space and proxemics (the study of how space is used in interpersonal communication), sensory reach, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics and electromagnetic interferences.

In one experiment, the design team analyzed footage from video cameras to determine how students were using a campus dining hall. They soon realized that the chairs in the facility ought to be lighter, so that students could move them around easily to create conversation circles, as well as armless, to allow people ample elbow room for signing.

“We are codifying ideas that have existed for centuries,” Bauman says. “Even when deaf people are renting an apartment, they may take the bold act of knocking down a wall, because having that clarity of vision is so critically important. We’re building on an age-old sensibility that is deeply embedded in deaf culture.”

Gallaudet has already applied the DeafSpace Guidelines to new buildings on campus, including the Sorenson Language and Communication Center, designed by SmithGroup, a D.C.-based architecture firm, which features long, open sight lines, visibility between floors, gently curving corners, and ample windows.  A new residence hall on campus is now under way using similar principles.


The completed Sorenson Language and Communication Center features long, open sight lines, visibility between floors, gently curving corners, and ample windows. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gallaudet University

The DeafSpace Guildlines are also in use at five existing residence halls. Working closely with campus faculty and students, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture, another D.C.-based firm, is now designing a complete renovation of the buildings using DeafSpace principles. The process will improve visual connections both within the buildings and with the campus at large, through new window openings and circulation patterns, according to the firm.

The Studio Twenty Seven team used extensive computer modeling to communicate their ideas with staff and students. They also used a 3D Tactile Braille program to allow blind students to understand the new spaces. Electronic drawings with variations in line heights and thicknesses help to differentiate interior and exterior walls, as well as doors and windows, according to Studio Twenty Seven Principal Todd Ray. The drawings were then loaded into a special resin 3D printer to create raised surface floor plans. Each Braille letter was three-dimensionally modeled as part of the document, since no AutoCad Braille font was available.  


A computer rendering shows how a residence hall at Gallaudet University could be renovated using DeafSpace design principles such as open sight lines and a lack of visual clutter. A horizontal band of dark green (at right) is placed at the optimal height and in an ideal color for understanding and using sign language. Photo credit: Studio Twenty Seven Architecture

“If you look at the DeafSpace Guidelines, you realize that understanding the essence of space and making connections leads you toward really good architecture,” Ray says. “It’s the foundation of what makes architecture good and rich and sensual.”

The social implications of this work are profound, proponents say. “Imagine how would we design a public transportation system that is based on this one goal – to promote and support visual contact and interaction between people,” says Robert Sirvage, a Gallaudet design researcher and professor who helped to develop the DeafSpace Guidelines. “Consider the sociopolitical implications of designing the world in ways that compel people to look at each other eye-to-eye much more often. DeafSpace really is about bringing a new perspective to the meaning of good design.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Olathe, Kansas.

Kim A. O'Connell is an award-winning journalist who writes frequently about the natural and built environments. Her work has appeared in Babble, Preservation, National Geographic News and the Washington Post. All posts »

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