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Deaf by design

I’ve always been intrigued by architecture. Good architecture. I love travelling where I get to experience a lot of this based on the territory I’m in.

It says a lot about a people and their culture and gives you insight also into their history and what contributed to how buildings were even conceptualised to make them a reality.

However, when you speak of architecture it is defined in more than one way. While most admire and see it mostly as aesthetically pleasing to the eye, many construct with a deeper meaning and purpose to their craft.

When I read that Gallaudet University, which is no doubt one of the best Deaf universities in the world had a building built using DeafSpace design, I was very interested to find out all that this kind of architecture entailed. As I had never even heard of the term before, I began to do a search and discovered some very creative and ingenious ideas behind DeafSpace.

DeafSpace is an environment constructed to fit a deaf person’s unique way of being. The concepts which are included in this environment include:

* Sensory reach

* Space and proximity

* Mobility and proximity

* Light and colour, and

* Acoustics

In 2005 architect Hansel Bauman (hbhm architects) established the DeafSpace Project in conjunction with the ASL Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University. Over the past five years the DSP developed the DeafSpace Guidelines, a catalogue of over 150 distinct DeafSpace architectural design elements that address the five major touch points between deaf experiences and the built environment which are all listed above.

Common to all of these categories are the ideas of community building, visual language, the promotion of personal safety and well-being. The new residence hall on the campus was designed by LTL Architects, in collaboration with Quinn Evans Architects and Sigal Construction.

There are truly many things which go into making an environment suitable, comfortable, accessible and just better for the deaf, and creating new buildings or making changes to the existing ones to better accommodate and facilitate their needs is definitely something to be applauded.

The Living and Learning Residence Hall 6 at Gallaudet University is the first building to be built based on this concept and so is a pioneer in its own right. The building has hands-free glass entry doors (sounds wonderfully “Star Trek-ish), lots of open space, adequate lighting for maximum visibility, paint colours that reduce glare and good acoustics.

There is a large assembly hall with terraced seating that allows anyone to see the lecturer up front and some of the design considerations include hallways that are wide and comfortable enough for people who are signing to pass through, and rooms and halls with good acoustics that reduce vibrations and other ambient sounds that may bother those who wear hearing aids.

I know this may seem pretty insignificant to the average person, but as an interpreter I’ve experienced some hurdles while trying to execute my job in serving the deaf community which turned out to be a trying experience for both myself and them.

Having to interpret where space is an issue, where people pass in front of me while I’m interpreting, where poor lighting makes visibility a challenge, where added noise is an irritant is annoying and extremely frustrating to both parties involved.

What makes things worse is when people, even after explanation, don’t seem to want to be accommodating to the deaf even in the smallest of ways. The attitude is “all of you are a bother — live with the way things are”.

Simple things like shifting a table or moving a chair or turning something slightly to the left are all seen as a burden and things only begin to change when you have to raise your voice or ask to see whoever’s in charge!

Deaf people rely so much on things visual that it is pointless to even think about improving life for them without giving serious thought to how information is presented so that there is full and complete comprehension.

I don’t know if people think that because someone loses one of their senses and the others are heightened, that they still don’t need to be accommodated in the best and fairest way possible.

I believe that there is still lots of work to be done in this area and the one thing we could do is to ask the deaf themselves the best way that this can be accomplished in their existing environment.

This actually goes for anyone with a disability. We need to be careful that we don’t make plans for people and then have to go back to the drawing board because we failed to include them in the process.

I applaud the founders of DeafSpace and look forward to seeing more buildings constructed to fit this model. When we make life easier for those faced with challenges, it brings us all closer to being on the same platform of equality.

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