Designing a City for the Deaf

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Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the leading institution for the deaf in the U.S., has released a set of DeafSpace Guidelines that could have an impact on urban development.

The completed Sorenson Language and Communication Center features long, open sight lines, visibility between floors, gently curving corners, and ample windows. Gallaudet University

Most cities aren't designed for deaf people. Sidewalks are frequently too narrow or too crowded for deaf persons engaged in a conversation that requires so-called "signing space." Public benches are often set in rows or squares, limiting the ability of the deaf to create the "conversation circles" and open sight lines that they require. Urban landscapes are so visually stimulating that they hinder communication among people who rely on visual cues. And light fixtures may be too dim or shine directly into signers' eyes.

These things don't just make a deaf person's life more challenging; they can make it dangerous. In January, three deaf people were struck by a vehicle and seriously injured in Olanthe, Kansas, as they left a deaf cultural event. The same thing happened to a deaf man last year in Sacramento.

In 2009, Deaf411, a public relations firm serving the deaf community, released a report on Deaf-Friendly Cities in the U.S., saluting places like Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Raleigh, and Denver for their efforts to accommodate the hearing impaired. But for every city on the list, countless others -- including San Francisco, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Philadelphia -- did not make the cut.

Now Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation's leading institution for the deaf and hard of hearing, has produced a set of so-called DeafSpace Guidelines that address those aspects of the urban environment that inhibit communication and mobility among the hearing-impaired. In doing so, architects and design researchers have used technology to gather information on how deaf people use public spaces and modify them to meet their needs. Campus officials say that the guidelines have already begun a dialogue that they hope will have an impact on urban development nationwide.

Read the full story at The Atlantic Cities.

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