Universal design and DeafSpace guidelines

Mar 31, 2021 | Blog, Design, Quiet Coalition

Image credit: Asmaa Hamed Abdel-Maksoud licensed under CC BY 4.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

When I was a boy I was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s marvelous Guggenheim Museum to want to become an architect. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any talent in drawing or design, and became a doctor instead. But I still like architecture, and have an appreciation for what good design can do for human activities and even the human spirit.

Something I learned as an internist-geriatrician is that built spaces can help people as they age, or require that they move because, for example, they can’t climb stairs or can’t maneuver a wheelchair or walker through a narrow hallway.

Anticipating those problems and designing spaces for them, to allow as many people as possible, with as many abilities and disabilities as possible, to use the built environment, is called Universal Design. I find the Irish National Disability Authority’s explanation of Universal Design easy to understand.

I was aware of articles about Universal Design in the workplace for those with hearing loss, but I wasn’t aware of the DeafSpace design guidelines developed at Gallaudet University until I read an article design for everyone in Dwell.

The article quotes Rachel Mix, a deaf architect, who notes that she can’t rely on auditory cues like hearing people do. She’s become expert at visually scanning her surroundings, but sharp angles in hallways pose a particular challenge. “I can’t hear if someone is coming, so I tend to bump into people as I turn corners,” Mix says. She continues, commenting that open floor plans, wide corridors, well-lit spaces, and circular seating areas all facilitate the experience of visual communicators. “Having direct visuals of faces and hands means that deaf and hard-of-hearing people can engage in conversation without limitation.”

As our population ages and becomes more diverse in so many ways, I hope that architects, designers, and those who write building codes are aware of the principles of Universal Design and the DeafSpace guidelines, and any other relevant information as well.

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