Skip to content
Author's Name: Clare Alexander
Date: Mon 28 Sep 2020

Designing for the Deaf for a Better World

< Previous    


The walk and talk, it’s a thing we do, walking with someone to a meeting and cramming in a conversation before you arrive, taking a walk in a park or through the city with another person and chatting along the way, walking and talking is a normal part of our human engagement, so what does it look like when you’re deaf?

This was the topic of an episode of 99% Invisible, a podcast that explores “the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about - the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world”, and when I heard it I was blown away. How can something so seemingly insignificant to me, like the width of a hallway, be so meaningful to a whole group of people and I never even noticed? The podcast episode explores the way that hallways and rooms are designed to accommodate the deaf, and the walk and talk is the perfect test for whether a physical space is designed to be accessible for those who rely on sign language to communicate.

Scene from the West Wing where walk and talks are really common

Think about it, when you walk and talk as two hearing people you spend most of your time looking forward, and even if you have to stagger with one of you ahead of the other, the conversation can continue. For those who are signing or lip reading, eye contact with the person you are speaking to is crucial. So if the hallway is too narrow or there are lots of obstacles along the path, the conversation has to stop to allow for both parties to navigate the space before resuming the conversation. In the podcast, DeafSpace is introduced. It is a design concept that considers the needs of the deaf as an integral design element, but it also recognises that designing for the deaf improves usability and comfort for everyone!

Once again, considering the needs of the ‘other’ improves outcomes for all, a principle that has become increasingly apparent as I learn more and more about the everyday lives of people with disabilities.

DeafSpace came into being at Galluadet University in Washington D.C. The university prides itself on being a barrier free university for the hard of hearing and the deaf. “Our built environment, largely constructed by and for hearing individuals, presents a variety of surprising challenges to which deaf people have responded with a particular way of altering their surroundings to fit their unique ways-of-being.  This approach is often referred to as DeafSpace.” Think about the number of times you've walked into a pre-set room with chairs placed out and you've pulled your chair one way or the other to a 'better' spot. Or when you've taken your seat at a show and someone really tall sits right in front of you and for the whole show you have to lean to one side so you can watch from between the gap in the heads in front of you, hoping that they stay perfectly still so as not to ruin your setup, and you think how theatres should be designed to avoid this problem. Those design interventions you experience are what DeafSpace is all about, it's the process by which a deaf person experiences the world and how we can design with that process in mind to make that experience better.

For example, at Galludet University all of the doors along corridors and walkways are automatic sliding doors, this allows people to remain hands free and continue their conversations when passing through sections of the building, but that is just the beginning. For people who hear with their eyes, there is so much more to the built environment that can be considered.

From the Galludet website the following design considerations make up DeafSpace:

-->Sensory Reach

Shadows, vibrations and spatial awareness are all more acute in the way deaf people read their physical environment.

-->Space and Proximity

The space between two signers so that they can see each other’s facial expressions and use their hands to sign.

-->Mobility and Proximity

Moving through a space while being able to sign.

-->Light and Colour

Eye fatigue can be caused as a result of poor lighting conditions, colour can also be used to soften the impact on the eyes and reduce strain.


Factoring in hearing aids in acoustic design is really important to prevent painful and distracting reverberation.

Galludet university campus designed for the deaf"Some of the innovations that hearing people might not notice—but that help deaf students thrive. In the Sorenson Language and Communication Center: 1) Open hallways let students see—and sign—between levels; 2) Glass walls fill the lobby with natural light, sparing the eyes of students who depend on visual communication; 3) Horseshoe-shaped seating allows even a large group to avoid sitting in rows, which make signed conversation difficult; 4) Curving walkways avoid sharp corners for signers engrossed in conversation." - Washingtonian

Looking at the above list, every consideration not only improves the quality of the indoor environment for the deaf, but it also improves the quality of the indoor environment for everyone. Spaces that are designed to prevent eye strain, to allow for easy movement without obstacles, that accommodate clear lines of vision between people in a room, that reduce reverberation and allow sound to flow, these are spaces that are better for everyone. This is the power of designing with disabilities in mind; we raise the standard for all. This rule is true beyond the built environment, when we create and design societies with people with disabilities in mind, our societies become better for everyone.

So how do we practice DeafSpace in our everyday lives? Does it mean we have to rebuild our whole physical environment to better incorporate the above elements? Maybe. But without needing that level of extremity we can create the same outcomes by applying DeafSpace methodology to the way we interact with people who are different to us. 

We can look at the model used by the Making Waves Foundation racing team which incorporates a mix of able and disabled bodied sailors working in a complex and multifaceted environment.

The culture on the boat recognises that the disabled on board have incredible strengths in what they can do, but also realistically acknowledges that there are things they can't do. It is for this reason every piece of equipment on the boat has a fixed storage space and must always be returned to that spot so that when the blind or dyslexic crew member goes looking for it they know where to find it without needing to see or read labels. Crew roles are allocated based on what position they can do where their disability is not a disability. For example a double leg amputee who came on board with us was given a role on the bow, a place where a lower centre of gravity is an advantage and where any bow person would spend a lot of time on their knees or scurrying around on their backside. Our mainsail trimmer is blind, a position that requires fine tuning and the ability to feel the effects of the wind on the sail and respond accordingly. This is a talent any sailor would envy.

The whole crew 'alters the surroundings' to fit the unique ways of being of the disabled. 

If we all did this, if we all altered even just one small thing in the spaces we move in, be it making sure there is ramp access for all places and events to adding alt-text to images in online documents, if we shared the responsibility of designing a more accessible and inclusive world, then we all benefit.

The Making Waves Blog is released every Monday - keep an eye on our Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn to keep up to date with the blog and all of our latest updates!

Making Waves Foundation test

Social Links