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Deaf people inhabit a rich sensory world where vision and touch are a primary means of spatial awareness and orientation. Many use sign language, a visual-kinetic mode of communication, and have a strong cultural identity built around shared life experiences.

Our environment, largely built by and for hearing people, presents a variety of surprising challenges that deaf people have tackled by altering their surroundings to fit their unique way of life.

This is the concept of DeafSpace.

When deaf people get together, they often work together to rearrange the furniture into a “conversation circle” to allow clear sightlines so everyone can participate in the visual conversation. Gatherings usually start with participants adjusting window shades, lighting, and seating to optimize conditions for visual communication that minimize eye strain.

Deaf homeowners often cut new openings in walls, place mirrors and lights in strategic locations to extend their sensory awareness and maintain a visual connection between family members.

These practical acts of making a DeafSpace are long-held cultural traditions that, while never-before formally recognized, are the basic elements of an architectural expression unique to deaf experiences. The study of DeafSpace offers valuable insights into the correlation between senses and how we construct the built environment and cultural identity from which society at large has much to learn.

The DeafSpace Project

In 2005 architect Hansel Bauman (hbhm architects) established the DeafSpace Project (DSP) in conjunction with the ASL Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University.

Over the next five years, the DSP developed the DeafSpace Guidelines, a catalog of over one hundred and fifty distinct DeafSpace architectural design elements that address the five major touch points between deaf experiences and the built environment:

  • Space and Proximity
  • Sensory Reach
  • Mobility and Proximity
  • Light and Color
  • Acoustics

Common to all of these are the principles of community, visual language, promotion of personal safety, and well-being.

DeafSpace Concepts

Sensory Reach

diagram of person's visual space

Spatial orientation and the awareness of activities within our surroundings are essential to maintaining a sense of well-being. Deaf people “read” activities in their surroundings that may not be immediately apparent to many hearing people through an acute sensitivity towards visual and tactile cues. These clues include vibrations, shadow movement, and reading subtle shifts in the expression of others. Designers can facilitate spatial awareness ‘in 360 degrees’ to improve deaf people’s orientation and wayfinding.

Space and Proximity

Space + Proximity Diagrams

To maintain clear visual communication, signers stand at a distance where they can see facial expressions and the full dimension of the signer’s “signing space.” Because of this, the space between two signers tends to be greater than that of a spoken conversation. As conversation groups grow in number, the space between individuals increases further, allowing visual connections for all. This need for space has a great impact on the layout of the furnishing in the room.

Mobility and Proximity

mobility and proximity diagrams

While walking together in conversation, signers often maintain a wider distance for clear visual communication. The signers also shift their gaze between conversation and their surroundings, scanning for hazards and maintaining proper direction. If one person senses even 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.

Light and Color

light color diagram

Poor lighting conditions such as glare, shadow patterns, and 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. Electric lighting and architectural elements used to control daylight can be adjusted to provide a soft, diffused light “attuned to deaf eyes.” Color can also be used to contrast skin tone and highlight sign language, facilitating visual wayfinding.

Acoustics

acoustics diagram

Deaf people can have a range of hearing abilities, and many use assistive devices, such as hearing aids or cochlear implants, to enhance sound. These devices can often amplify reflected sound waves, which can be distracting and even painful. Designers should be aware of this and try to reduce sources of background noise and reverberation.

Images © Dangermond Keane Architecture

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