(edited June 4, 2017)

Deaf is a culture. Deafness is not seen in the deaf community as a disability but rather as a difference. It is not necessarily something to overcome as much as it is something to become part of. Deaf culture is rich in social behavior, tradition, values and history and just like any culture, it has its own language.

As a designer of public space, the spaces I work in will be utilized by people who are hearing and by people who are deaf. When we work as designers in any culture not our own, we research, right? I’ve spent the last year learning American Sign Language (asl) and Deaf Culture. It has colored the way I look at the design of all public space.

Although I am hearing, I live in a world that includes a deaf nephew and two nieces who are hard of hearing. My grandmother was completely deaf as far back as my mother remembered. When my sister and I were children, we’d watch cartoons with my grandmother and always turned off the sound, because Grandma couldn’t hear. Not sure that helped her a whole lot, but it did give us some measure of empathy. My own mother’s deafness was profound by the time of her death. My husband wears two hearing aids but still misses voices in certain ranges. Deafness is a normal part of our lives.



photo courtesy Dangermond Keane and

At Gallaudet University in Washington DC, where one of my nieces graduated and then coached, nearly everyone is deaf to some degree. ASL is the common language. Founded in 1856 as Columbia Institution, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law authorizing the college to confer degrees in 1864. In 1954 the name of the school was changed to Gallaudet and now serves about two thousand students.

Those of us that are hearing don’t understand what deafness means moment to moment. Curbed published an article explaining how architecture can affect the lives of those who live without hearing. At Gallaudet they’ve developed an architectural philosophy they call DeafSpace. A way of looking at the built environment that allows for multi-sensory engagement. This philosophy rests on five principles.

space and proximity

People who require eye contact for the duration of a conversation, and those who use their hands and facial expressions exclusively to communicate require more space than those who hear. Sign language relies on the hands as well as physical expression to converse. People who read lips need to see the lips they are reading. My mother used to press her finger to her nose when she was talking with my sister or me. This meant we were to look at her while speaking. And you didn’t want to be the kid across the room confessing a misdeed…she was pretty good at getting the gist of the conversation. The configuration of space also matters. A long rectangular table that doesn’t allow eye contact between everyone participating in a conversation isn’t effective. Round or oblong furnishings allow better connection between participants. Furniture that is movable allows small or large groups to organize the space efficiently.

sensory reach

Deaf people use their other senses to understand an environment. Ample glazing aids sight, the vibrations of footfalls tell of someone coming around a corner. And people who don’t hear use shadows to read their surroundings. My grandmother used vibration to tell her where her six children were in the house and what they were up to. When I need to get my niece or nephew’s attention I wave a hand or catch an eye before speaking.

mobility and proximity

When deaf people are walking and talking, visual contact between speakers has to be maintained and hands need to be available to talk. So having to grab a door handle intrudes on a deaf conversation. As do narrow or steep stairways that require focused attention. So when designing DeafSpace, stairs and ramps are wide and shallow, sidewalks and walkways are wide, doors open automatically. Repetitive architectural elements are also emphasized to aid instinctive navigation.

light and color

Colors that contrast with skin tones aid people in seeing facial expressions and moving hands. And light needs to be bright enough to see but not so bright as to cause glare. Windows must be shaded from above so that someone facing them is not blinded by the sun’s glare when conversing. Abrupt changes in illumination levels (ie from outdoors to indoors) are momentarily blinding and interfere with conversation. Deep overhangs at entries can allow the eyes to transition and minimize disruption.


In the deaf community, acoustics are an important consideration. Quiet is the goal, but what is quiet to the hearing is not necessarily so to the hard of hearing. Hearing aids and implants amplify background sounds making the hum of an air conditioner or background buzz or sounds that echo extremely distracting. When I’m working alongside my husband, music is forbidden. If there is noise in the background when he is trying to work or talk on the phone, his hearing aids amplify the background sound to levels that create total distraction. Restaurants without acoustical control are out of the question for us.

universal design vs accessible design

As architects and designers, especially in a world focused on accessibility, designing for the deaf presents challenges that many of us haven’t yet come to appreciate. We know how to accommodate the mobility challenged, but what about those who don’t hear? Universal Design, or design of products and environments that meet the needs of most users including able bodied, disabled, elderly, children, etc. requires that we look at accessibility from a much broader standpoint. This is something that Gallaudet is approaching with DeafSpace.

Keep in touch,

ps….if you’re interested in learning asl, the best route is a class where you have an opportunity to sign with others. But here’s a second best option: ASLU. If you want to practice asl comprehension, check out the news at the Daily Moth.

pps….and if you want to see some beautiful music in asl, check out the video below.


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