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 maintain a strong cultural identity built around these sensibilities and shared life experiences. 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.
When deaf people congregate the group customarily works together to rearrange furnishings into a “conversation circle” to allow clear sightlines so everyone can participate in the visual conversation. Gatherings often begin with participants adjusting window shades, lighting and seating to optimize conditions for visual communication that minimize eyestrain. Deaf homeowners often cut new openings in walls, place mirrors and lights in strategic locations to extend their sensory awareness and maintain 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 about the interrelationship between the senses, the ways 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 catalogue 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, and finally acoustics. Common to all of these categories are the ideas of community building, visual language, the promotion of personal safety and well-being.
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