Vox published a video on the architecture of Gallaudet University with the tag line “we live in a world made for people who hear.” The concept of Deaf Space, which is “an approach to architecture and design that is primarily informed by the unique ways in which Deaf people perceive and inhabit space” is at the forefront of design choices.

What I found most eye opening about this video is how clearly it illustrates how much I take for granted. This is so much more than just clear sightlines in a classroom. Transparency is huge - doors, windows, everywhere-and not just to facilitate communication but also for security. Hearing people can usually hear somebody approaching the door or panic outside an enclosed space; sight can only compensate in that manner if their aren’t big bulky doors and walls getting in the way. The designers also make use of reflective surfaces so people can see if somebody is coming up on them, which is another thing hearing often facilitates.

I also take the simple act of carrying on a conversation while walking incredibly for granted. ASL speakers not only need to be able to see each other, but they also need a certain amount of personal space because 3D space is part of ASL grammar. Since having to hold off on talking to people while moving is kind of insane when you stop and really think about it, Galluadet has very wide corridors and walkways and opts for ramps and wider stairways because they are easier to navigate while maintaining eye contact.

There’s also so many other “oh duh” things. Since everything is so visual eye strain is a real issue. So they choose furniture colors and other colors to reduce eyestrain but contrast enough with human skin colors so that people stand out. They also have diffuse lighting because it’s softer but plenty of focused lighting when needed. This wired article on designing the dorm discusses how an “open concept island centered” kitchen is more than just a trend; it’s used to facilitate community among the students. And community is what they’re most trying to stress with the architecture; they want the environment to interfere with ASL conversations about as much as it interferes a conversation in English.

It’s a bit of a radical way to think about accessibility design since it is focused squarely on the Deaf students wheras typical accessibility design tends to be about tweaking an environment for hearing students to make it kinda sorta maybe work. And while yes, this is kinda obvious for Galluadet because it is at the center of Deaf culture, there are lessons to be gleaned for approaching accessibility design in new and ongoing projects. What would our buildings and public spaces look like if accessibility was part of the conception phase rather than tacked on near the end of implementation?


For more on Gallaudet, Stuff You Missed in History has a fantastic episode: Deaf President Now