The Deaf community live in a world designed for people who can hear, but a new design movement challenges how buildings should be built, where sensory experiences and interaction with the fabric of the building takes precedence.

Unique situations can necessitate a rethink of accepted beliefs and processes. The Gallaudet University is one such case in which accepted design concepts have been questioned. In fact, the university challenged the principles of architecture in terms of how deaf people communicate within space, and have since developed a new understanding of how a person’s sensory experience can be enhanced within the built environment.

Founded in 1864, the Gallaudet University is located in Washington, DC, USA. It is the only liberal arts educational institution totally tailored to deaf and hard of hearing students in the USA, with a school motto that says “there is no other place like this in the world.” This is certainly the case, not just for the unique learning environment that has been created, but for the design concepts that have developed from this environment.

Whilst students include those that are profoundly deaf, they also include those that have various levels of reduced hearing or hearing loss and those who may have cochlear implants or hearing aids. The form of communication used across the campus is primarily American Sign Language.

Researchers from the university’s Department of ASL/Deaf Studies and the campus architect, Hansel Bauman of hbhm architects, created the DeafSpace Project in 2005.

The project adopted a new approach that looked at the ways deaf people use and occupy public space, which can be uniquely different from how those who can hear use the same space. Together they developed best-practice principles which catalogue over 150 distinct architectural patterns.

The project has now been codified into the DeafSpace Design Guidelines, which are being used to design new buildings and upgrade existing buildings on Gallaudet’s campus. These principles align very well with the principles of universal design and, like many of these design aspects, they not only benefit the deaf community, they provide great benefit for everyone.

The DeafSpace Project has also been recognised for its general contribution to accessibility and the universal design movement and won the Gold Award in the Regional Planning category from the International Association of Universal Design in 2015. It’s obvious that consideration of these guidelines will extend far beyond the boundaries of Gallaudet University in the future.

The guidelines consider five basic design principles:

  1. Space and proximity
  2. Sensory reach
  3. Mobility and proximity
  4. Light and colour
  5. Acoustics

Space and proximity

Space is particularly important for people communicating by signing to each other. Therefore, people need to maintain a clear line of sight to each other to read facial expressions and sign language. This means group spaces, classrooms and lecture rooms are arranged in semi-circles or ‘U’ shapes so all students and lecturers can see each other. It relies on creating public space environments with good wayfinding and visibility over other areas.

Sensory reach

Awareness of one’s surroundings is essential for people who are deaf. The fabric of the building can play an important part in how people can sense their environment through other visual or tactile cues. For example, mirrors and reflective surfaces help a person perceive movement within their immediate environment. Transparent or opaque doors and walls help to identify changes in lighting, movement, or shadows outside the confines of a room.

Mobility and proximity

People who communicate by non-verbal means need a wider ‘signing space.’ This means pathways need to be wide enough for two people to walk side by side, with sufficient space to sign to each other and enough visual field or distance. If they were to approach a door or other obstacle, the two would move around or through the obstacle together, which means someone might be walking backwards or sideways as communication continues. For this reason, the use of stairs is avoided as they require more care and attention, therefore, wide ramps are preferred where there is a change of level. Good design of circulation spaces makes it easier to communicate and safer as people signing can move without being distracted by hazards.

Light and colour

When the built environment has poor lighting, it restricts the ability to communicate well. People who sign or lip read need lighting conditions that reduce shadows, visual confusion and glare on surfaces. Colour and lighting are key features of providing an environment for good non-verbal communication, with diffused lighting, contrasting colour schemes and suitable backgrounds that reduce eye strain.


Spaces should be designed to reduce background noise and reverberation. Many people with reduced or residual hearing may use assistive devices such as hearing aids or cochlear implants to enhance the sound around them. However, these devices will also amplify background noise, which could interfere with the ability to hear, understand, and pay attention. It can also be uncomfortable and lead to great frustration. Therefore, the use of these devices can prove ineffective in environments with a building fabric that allows sounds to echo or reflect off surfaces.

DeafSpace is a great initiative that challenges perceptions and presents being deaf as a positive that can help bring about new perspectives in life. The application of DeafSpace principles not only benefits the proportion of society with reduced or no hearing, but can benefit everyone in society throughout all stages of a person’s life, making it a paragon of universal design.