Cutting Corners: How to optimise space and design for the deaf community
Architectural designer and activist Chris Laing, founder of the Deaf Architecture Front, calls for a more inclusive approach to public space.
When walking down a corridor, do you ever worry about colliding with other people? When stepping into a meeting room and seeing a rectangular table, does your heart sink a little? Or, when using a public toilet, are you fearful about what will happen if the building catches on fire?
When a hearing person navigates a building, they are – consciously or not – constantly assessing their environment for changes. They pick up on the numerous auditory signals that indicate something is about to happen: the footsteps that suggest someone is about to appear from around a corner, or that someone is behind a door and about to open it – potentially into the face of the oblivious deaf person walking down the hallway.
“Many of our buildings do not take the deaf experience into account in their architecture, resulting in public spaces that are, at best, annoying and at worst dangerous.”Chris Laing
Rectangular meeting tables are popular with interior architects because they maximise space efficiency. But deaf people, who tend to rely on full-face visibility to support communication – whether signing, lip-reading or picking up facial-expression cues – often find themselves cut out of the conversation on rectangular tables. It gets frustrating to be ushered into a meeting around one again and again.
And the toilets? When a fire alarm goes off in a public building, deaf people generally depend on the rapid responses of others or the panicked exodus from the room to register that an emergency is underway. Alone in a toilet cubicle, there is no way of knowing. I know I’m not alone in having that twinge of ‘what-if’ anxiety when I go to the bathroom in a public space – or when I get into a lift and find myself wondering how I might possibly communicate on the intercom if the lift stops.
Issues like these are a daily reality for deaf people as they make their way around the built environment. There are so many things – from poor lines of sight to acoustically hostile material palettes – that create problems for deaf people but which hearing architects would never consider and have never been asked to consider. They are all easily fixed – door alcoves, rounded tables and visual alarm systems solve the three problems outlined above at a swoop – and yet we encounter them over and over.
“We need to collectively work to the same set of guidelines that enable and empower inclusive design that benefits society as a whole.”Chris Laing
The overarching reason that so many spaces are not deaf-friendly is because the field of architecture as a whole is not deaf-inclusive. Basically, there aren’t enough deaf architects. Right now in the UK, of the one per cent of qualified architects who identify as disabled, only 0.2 per cent are deaf. It’s hardly surprising that so many of our buildings do not take the deaf experience into account in their architecture, resulting in public spaces that are, at best, annoying and at worst dangerous.
“Why not involve more deaf people in the planning and consultation process?” you might ask, quite sensibly, in order to ensure their perspectives are factored into the building design. This would be possible, but there aren’t many developers or architects out there who routinely offer British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation facilities, so deaf people are effectively excluded from the conversation even if their views are, ostensibly, invited. My MA dissertation at the Royal College of Arts focused on accessibility guidelines for public buildings (which currently amount to little more than mandatory hearing loops). My research found that 41 per cent of deaf people did not know what the term ‘public consultation’ meant. Over the course of my own career, I have attended 15 public architecture events – a drastically small number compared to my hearing peers – because I knew I’d be locked out by the language barrier.
“I want to see the deaf community not worrying about how they can access a space, and for them to have the drive and opportunity to inform and influence change across the sector.”Chris Laing
If we, as architects, are serious about creating inclusive, human-centred buildings, this absolutely has to change. Nationwide, we need to collectively work to the same set of guidelines that enable and empower inclusive design that benefits society as a whole.
As a starting point, let’s take the accessibility guidelines created by RIBA and information provided in the statutory building regulations that all architects work to – such as the Access to and Use of Buildings: Approved Document M – and let’s update them to include the principles of DeafSpace (an approach to architecture that is informed by the ways in which deaf people inhabit space), as outlined by architect Hansel Bauman. Commissioned by the world’s only university for the deaf, Gallaudet University in Washington DC, Bauman outlined five key elements that architects should consider in order to create spaces that offer deaf people an experience equivalent to that of a hearing person in the same setting:
- Sensory reach: how to maximise a deaf person’s awareness of their surroundings
- Space and proximity: how the layout and furnishing of a space can facilitate communication
- Mobility and proximity: how to optimise circulation so deaf people can safely navigate a space, while communicating
- Light and colour: how lighting provision and colour schemes can affect conversation and visual wayfinding
- Acoustics: how background noise and reverberation can be minimised for users of hearing aids or cochlear implants
These five elements serve not as blanket stipulations, as buildings differ in context and function, but as guiding principles that can at least remind architects to accommodate the deaf perspective that they might otherwise have overlooked. They cannot fix every problem in every building, but they can provide a framework for how to build spaces that deaf people can navigate with confidence and, importantly, feel safe in.
I want to see university courses adapt their curriculum so that inclusive design and DeafSpace are taught at the early stages of an architect’s career. Not as an add-on, but as something integral to the way we practise as architects, the choices we make and how society experiences the built environment. In the future, I want to see the deaf community not worrying about how they can access a space, and for them to have the drive and opportunity to inform and influence change across the sector.
I would like local authorities to make public consultations accessible for deaf people – this means creating accessible resources and providing BSL interpreters. Each council’s website should provide a process that enables deaf people to request an interpreter so they can be part of the decisions made in their own community.
And, of course, I would like to see more deaf architects, more deaf consultants and fewer collisions in corridors.
Artwork by Zoë Beckley