Gallaudet University.
Evan Vucci/AP

Lighting, sound-deflecting surfaces, big spaces—all of these elements can influence a deaf person’s ability to communicate. DeafSpace design considers it all.

Updated: March 04, 2019

A museum atrium with a grand, lofted ceiling. A restaurant with an open kitchen, a candle-lit bar, and trendy metal chairs. A conference room with a long, rectangular table.

These spaces might look good. But to deaf and hard-of-hearing people who pass through them, the designs can be alienating: too echoey or loud to hear voices; too shadowy, dark, or blinding to discern sign language or read lips; or lacking necessary sight-lines.

Fixing the spaces—and avoiding reproducing them—isn’t easy, though. The reality is that, for many architects, designing rooms, buildings, and homes with the deaf and hard of hearing community in mind is not their first priority. But if any city is modeling more intentional design practices, it might be Washington, D.C.

The capital city is home to Gallaudet University, which is known as the only liberal arts college for deaf students in the world, and where the principles of “DeafSpace Design” first emerged about a decade ago. With those concepts at the fore, the university is currently working with local real estate developer JBG Smith to build 1.2 million square feet of residential, office, and retail space near the NoMa neighborhood’s food and shopping hall, Union Market; 5,000 square feet of which is being set aside, for a time, to be occupied by deaf-owned businesses.

At an event organized by the NoMa Business Improvement District last month as part of their “Nerds in NoMa” free speaking series, some of the players involved in the Gallaudet expansion plan, along with dozens of deaf and hard of hearing residents of the city, gathered to discuss how DeafSpace design can be scaled up and out. Moderated by Sam Swiller, the founder of Holbrook Capital and an advisor on Gallaudet’s real estate investments, the panelists included Hansel Bauman, the Executive Director of Campus Design and Planning at Gallaudet and Ayisha Swann, who oversees development projects at JBG Smith; along with Jon Cetrano, the owner and founder of Streetcar 82 Brewing, and Robb Dooling, a commissioner on a NoMa Advisory Neighborhood Council.

“One of the big buzzwords right now is ‘universal design,’” said Bauman. “I think in some ways deaf space actually is a critique or criticism of the idea of universal design—that everything fits all.” Instead, he said, DeafSpace design challenges architects, and everyone else, to understand how different people really use and move through space, and shape it accordingly.

A “genuine openness to communication”

If customers want to successfully order a beer at Streetcar 82, they can’t mumble into their phones. They have to look up, be present, and make eye contact, says Cetrano, who opened the Hyattsville, Maryland brewery with two friends.

Cetrano is a deaf alum of Gallaudet University, and employs all deaf and hard-of-hearing servers. To take orders, bartenders have to lip-read, or ask customers to point at the menu. Paying attention to the person taking your order is polite, most would agree. It’s also one of the simple personal adaptations that makes space more accessible. “DeafSpace design incorporates genuine openness to communication,” says Cetrano.

Beyond those human interventions, though, the most fundamental element of deaf space design is the lighting. It’s not just about making things brighter, though that helps: It’s about balance. Natural light is better than harsh fluorescents. Some close vision signers, counterintuitively, prefer dimmer lights; others need more illumination for lip-reading.

At night, that balance is even more important. Think of a loading dock, Swann said: Because of the contrast between the bright lights and the very dark spaces, the space feels darker overall. But “when you have balanced lighting inside and outside … you create a safer feeling environment.” In JBG’s work at National Landing—the northern Virginia neighborhood where Amazon’s new headquarters will soon arrive—for example, they brought on a lighting designer to draft a lighting master plan for the public space to craft the nighttime streetscape.

Even simple things like changing the color scheme of a restaurant or building can change the way people interact with it. “You want a color palette that you can easily see fingers off of,” said Swiller; one that is distinct from the color of anyone’s skin. At Streetcar 82, Cetrano says he changed the color of his menu board almost 50 times, before finally choosing a high contrast color: green. When the light hits it, it doesn’t reflect like it did when the board was black.

It was as much of a business choice as a humane one. “If you’re thinking about communication, can the customer easily order what they want? I’m not talking about the deaf customer. I’m talking about any customer,” he said. “If they had a hard time communicating and ordering, that’s the customer experience. Customer experience means better customer relations.”

Reimagining the physical footprint of a space can also make communication easier. Take classrooms or conference rooms, for example. “Traditionally the aspect ratio of classrooms [is] long, deep rooms with straight rows,” said Bauman. “So there’s also no visual connection between the people within the space.” In Gallaudet’s spaces, people sit not rectilinearly, but in squares or circles. For Swiller, it’s a huge boon. “There are no corners where I can’t lip read somebody.”

In Gallaudet’s JBG project specifically, there has also been an emphasis on altering the streets with communication patterns in mind. The space it takes for two deaf people to sign to each other while walking down the street is wider than the berth two hearing people need to speak, said Swann. “What that lends itself to is wider, more pedestrian friendly sidewalks,” and benches placed across from each other, instead of ones set up side by side.

This, again, has benefits for all spatial users—similar to how cities initially installed “curb cuts” primarily for wheelchair accessibility, said Dooling, but soon realized it had ripple effects for people with strollers, bicyclists, and scooter riders.

The element that seemed to pose the greatest challenge for many people at the event was the quality and presence of sound. One woman had to step down from a volunteer position at a Smithsonian museum because she couldn’t communicate with guests over the echoes in the atrium. When the atrium was redesigned by a “world-famous” architect, they added a coffee bar, with bean grinders whose crunching sounds reverberated through the space.

“My thought was to add panels that would absorb sound, that would be the same color and blend in,” she said. “But they didn’t want to touch anything visually about the space because it was designed by this world-famous artist.”

Another woman with cochlear implants lamented the fact that she’s been driven out of her favorite restaurants because they’re just too noisy. “I communicate mostly orally, and I always struggle in restaurants because the way they’re currently designed they seem to maximize noise to create that ambiance,” she said. Even when she’s asked, waiters have been unwilling to seat her farther from the kitchen, where ambient noise is softer.

Bauman admitted that even at Gallaudet, they’ve made mistakes in their own acoustic design. Because they try to fill their spaces with the best natural light, they’ve constructed big, tall rooms—“but the architects are using hard materials,” meaning that “all of a sudden you have this very tinny and echoey space. Half the people can’t sit and listen to a lecture in them.”

But the restaurants of today are only so loud “because architects don’t design them to be quiet,” as Kate Wagner wrote in The Atlantic. The trendiest ones have “sparse, modern decor; high, exposed ceilings; and almost no soft goods, such as curtains, upholstery, or carpets.” They’re filled with clangy, industrial-style metal chairs; and steel or slate-tile floors and ceilings that allow sound to bounce and ricochet.

“I do see some promise happening,” said Dooling. Tom Sietsema, the Washington Post’s food critic, has started including acoustic reviews in his critiques, bringing a sound-level measurement tool along with him to analyze the decibel levels while he eats. An iPhone app called SoundPrint allows guests to review restaurants by noise level, themselves. “More and more apps like that, and cultural changes like that we see are promoting people to value the acoustics they experience over the design,” said Dooling. “It’s going to take some time and design changes, but it’s coming.”

Selling accessibility

Because more time and energy is spent developing and executing these kinds of design plans, they often cost more to construct. To pay for it, some developers choose to bake in cost premiums for certain design elements, said Swann. “It’s really about making the case that you can enhance a place,” she said. “Ultimately you’ll see the implications in rent increases in the neighborhood because you are designing to this higher standard, to a higher level.”

But doing things like adjusting lighting to make it dimmer or softer means buildings use less energy, argued Cetrano, and padding windows with shades helps with insulation. “So accessibility and how we determine what accessibility looks like already has the cost benefit built in,” he said, in this case in the form of lower heating and electricity bills. And while jacking up rents to account for extra design costs may help push developers to create more accessible spaces for the deaf, that’s useless if the community itself is displaced.

Advocating for DeafSpace design principles is partly just a question of framing, said Swiller: “You have one group that says you need to justify the cost. The other group is saying the benefit is the justification.”

Still, most agreed that there is a way to communicate both the economic and human benefits of DeafSpace design. When a yoga instructor who teaches the city’s only “deaf yoga” class asked the building manager to add more lighting in her yoga studio, “they said that they couldn’t,” she said. “They said if they put more lighting in, it would take out lighting from other areas. It would short the circuits.” Swiller’s advice? Make the business case.

“The more lighting you have, the more business you’ll generate, the more foot traffic in the building, the more rent they can charge eventually, the more valuable their building,” he said. “If you can make that economic case, then you have a chance.”

The faces behind the DeafSpace design revolution

Myra Jordan is not deaf, or hard of hearing. But her best childhood friend was, and so, growing up, Jordan learned American Sign Language, and became a part of the tightly-knit Gallaudet deaf community. After she became a police officer in D.C. nearly three decades ago, she fought hard for the department to launch a Deaf and Hard of Hearing police unit—thanks to her advocacy, D.C. is the only city in the country that deploys ASL interpreters and that focuses primarily on the needs of the deaf.

D.C. is full of stories like this, of individuals who have stepped in where designers, architects, or even national policymakers won’t—or can’t—adapt for the deaf. Dooling joined the ANC board specifically to advocate for deaf people’s needs, and has pushed D.C.’s Department of Transportation to improve Florida Avenue transportation access, and to install bike lots and widen sidewalks in front of Gallaudet.

Also in the audience was Erik Nordlof, a deaf D.C. resident and a movie buff. Along with members of the D.C. Deaf Moviegoers club he co-organized, he’s approached local movie theaters and asked them to add open captions to more of their screenings. One by one, some have listened. Now, he’s working with D.C. council member Charles Allen to pass the Open Movie Captioning Requirement Act of 2018, a bill that would mandate all movie theaters with more than three screens to “play open captioning during four showings of each film they’re screening weekly, including two during ‘peak movie attendance hours,’” according to DCist. He told CityLab he hopes if D.C. passes it, more cities will follow.

But along with fighting to change a city made without the input of deaf people, including more deaf representatives involved with the design process is also priority, Bauman says, which he does partly by hiring two interns every year. “I think what we’re doing there is just making this idea the empowerment of building a place for yourself, of being able to be empowered to have a place that expresses who you are,” he said.

But Cetrano says many deaf people hit a glass ceiling. “I know many deaf people who start working with a particular company and they watch their hearing colleagues get promoted time and time again, when deaf employees don’t have that same advantage. They don’t have that same accessibility and don’t have the opportunities to move up the corporate ladder, so they leave.” By hiring all deaf and hard of hearing employees at Streetcar 82, Cetrano is trying to shatter it.

“While deaf space design principles are really important,” he said, “employment principles are a key component of that.”

Design doesn’t have to be “universal.” But it can be empathetic.

Because of their emphasis on serving the Gallaudet community, the Nerds in NoMa nights all include ASL translations. But even the space that we’d gathered in—the lobby of 1200 First Street Northeast—fell victim to the same design tension participants discussed all night: It was beautiful, but, for the deaf and hard of hearing community, it was impractical. Pink ants crawled up a mural to the right of the stage, part of a rotating exhibit meant to activate lobby space. But the lights highlighting the art were too bright—looking into them burned white spots into our eyes, which would make it hard to see the signers’ motions for the next few seconds. “If this light were a softer color, maybe a light yellow, a little dimmer, it would be much easier for me to have a conversation with multiple people in the room,” said Cetrano.

The large, floor-to-ceiling windows were perfect for letting in natural light during the day, but once night fell, speakers were uncomfortably backlit and shadowed. And the long, rectangular layout of the space made it so that those seated in the back had to strain to see and hear.

But in the lobby, as in other spaces around the city, there were ways to adapt. Moments after the event began and attendees said they were having trouble seeing, Braulio Agnese, the director of marketing for the NoMa BID, ducked into the space to erect a tin can podium, fashioned out of an upside-down cooler that minutes earlier had held La Croix on ice. It was a meta-moment—in real time, he’d helped redesign the space based on feedback from the deaf community.

“What we just witnessed really was an act of community taking place,” said Bauman. “It seems deaf space teaches us all how to insert the idea of empathy into design, which we as architects are never trained to do.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Jon Cetrano’s name.

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