Deaf Urbanism is the idea that cities can and should be designed around people who use spaces differently and hold diverse values — particularly Deaf cultural values, which tend to be more collectivist and inclusive. Deaf Urbanism involves thinking about urbanism and how we interact with the built environment in a way that reflects Deaf ways of being. However, it’s not just Deaf people who can benefit from the tenants of Deaf Urbanism.
A movement called DeafSpace was born here in DC about a decade ago. DeafSpace is an architectural concept about designing buildings and campuses specifically for Deaf people, who have unique spatial and physical needs. Gallaudet University, a university for the Deaf located in Northeast DC, has been pioneering work in this area, including constructing several buildings to DeafSpace standards.
Over the past few years I’ve been involved in some of these projects at Gallaudet. I’m here to share what I’ve learned about DeafSpace ideals and what urbanists — hearing or not — can learn from the Deaf community about designing better and more accessible cities.
The Deaf identity
First, a note on style: “Deaf” with a capital D refers to the community and culture, as opposed to merely pertaining to a medical condition.
Deaf ways of being are different: Deaf people are often more collectivist (dare I say socialist) than American society in general, and often move to cities with larger populations of Deaf people to find and build community and culture. The cities Deaf people are drawn to are centered around educational institutions like Gallaudet University here in DC; the Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York; and the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, Texas. With their educational and employment opportunities and concentrated populations of Deaf people, these cities have become Deaf cultural centers.
The best parallel for the deaf identity is the contemporary LGBTQ identity. Both are “horizontal” identities, meaning it’s rarely passed on from generation to generation. About 90 percent of Deaf people are born to hearing families, which can make Deaf people head to big cities to seek others like themselves — not dissimilar to the LGBTQ community, whose members often head to urban areas in search of community.
DC is unique in another way: there is a large population of Deaf college students and college-educated Deaf people here. Unfortunately, this is not the norm across America. A 70 percent unemployment rate, mass incarceration (over 40 percent of inmates have a disability), and language deprivation has decimated Deaf communities over the years.
Deaf culture is finally becoming mainstream with activist celebrities like Nyle DiMarco and Marlee Matlin garnering widespread appeal. American Sign Language is being taught in more and more in schools across the United States, and is now the third most taught language. However, the Deaf community is still fighting oppressive and eugenic mindsets: often deafness is still not seen as a normal part of human variety and neurological diversity.
Deaf + urbanism is a natural marriage
Many of the cultural values inherent to the Deaf community are already represented in urbanist thinking. One example is the sense of community and collectivism — bumping into a Deaf friend or acquaintance on H Street NE is commonplace, and often results in extended interactions that make everyone late (colloquially referred to as DST, or Deaf standard time).
In Union Market next to the Gallaudet University campus, alumni, students, and faculty discuss everything from the football team to the new development in the Union Market area. The Deaf community is small and tight-knit, but increasing these opportunities to interact are crucial when it comes to things like finding jobs. Often job interviews, student projects, and networking happens over a cup of coffee at Union Market. This pattern of interaction inspired Deaf Urbanism.
DeafSpace started about ten years ago in part to include a Deaf perspective in city planning, politics, and initiatives. A Deaf perspective in urbanism includes collectivist ideals including prioritizing spaces specifically designed for public interaction, better community engagement for all people (specifically for those that are Deaf), and most importantly, a diverse and unique perspective.
Over time, Deaf Urbanism evolved into an offshoot of the District of Columbia Association for the Deaf. The two groups integrated to better advocate for the values of the Deaf community in urbanism and for urbanism in the Deaf community.
Taking Deaf Urbanism to the next level
Gallaudet University, as a landowner and resident bordering the Union Market area, intends to bring DeafSpace’s philosophy to their developments in partnership with developer JBG Smith. These large projects raise a question: Can we design entire neighborhoods and cities specifically for Deaf people and for others with unique physical and spatial needs?
Recently, there’s been discussion inside the local Deaf community about how to apply DeafSpace ideals not just a campus, but a neighborhood or even an entire city. Many Deaf urbanists are wondering what a city designed specifically for Deaf people would look like, and what kind of community this would create. How could we engage the Deaf community at large in urban projects and in the fabric of the city?
Tomorrow I will discuss why we all need Deaf urbanism, and how an inclusive city is better for everyone.