Students inside the Sorenson Language and Communication Center, designed specifically for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Image by Gallaudet University used with permission.

Inclusive and accessible urbanism is crucial to creating dense, walkable, and vibrant cities that benefit everyone. DeafSpace and other accessibility-focused urbanist organizations benefit hearing and able-bodied people in a myriad of ways that are often not recognized.

Deaf Urbanism is about changing the conversations around our cities, bringing our Deaf cultural values to the city at large, and preserving our place in society at large — as well as defining urbanism for our own community. Many tenants of Deaf Urbanism have to do with fostering a sense of inclusion as well as eliminating ableism and tokenism.

This type of urbanism benefits all of us, especially here in DC. However, there needs to be more of a concerted effort to include, seek out, and support urbanists from diverse backgrounds — and to recognize that we have much to contribute to the planning conversation.

Developer SmithGroup JJR and Gallaudet University collaborated on the Sorenson Language and Communication Center, using DeafSpace principles. Image created with Google Maps.

Deaf Urbanism is really just good design

Many able-bodied people benefit from technological advancements that were first designed for Deaf people, such as subtitles and texting. In urban contexts, various design ideals in DeafSpace include tactile elements, visual access and wayfinding throughout the urban environment. Tactile elements are simply changes in the walking surfaces to denote uses and boundaries — think of a rough stone edge near a curb, so that when you are looking away, you can feel with your feet when you are reaching the edge.

When it comes to visual access, having buildings and spaces that are open, have lots of light, and have direct visual connection benefit everyone. Being able to see your friends in a group in a building across the way on the second floor is simply good design. Applying these items in a larger urban context, we can use different materials in paving to denote different spaces and transitions, such as a cafe, a sidewalk, and a crosswalk. Having appropriate visual connection of buildings to Metro stations instead of buildings obscuring the visual landscape benefits everyone.

Many other urban design elements — such as gentle slopes and wide sidewalks instead of stairs — benefit people that have limited mobility and are also appreciated by able-bodied people. Another example is reduced curb cuts, which benefit pedestrians and bikers as well as people who are Deaf and disabled. Instead of having to step down or look for cars, an able-bodied person can just walk through.

MJ Bienvenu, chair of ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University, presents about DeafSpace and how plans for the Sorenson Language and Communication Center were developed to the Deaf Counseling Advocacy and Referral Agency. Everyone in the room can see each other —  that's important to ASL users. Image by Sean Hoyer licensed under Creative Commons.

Deaf culture is a boon

Deafness is found in communities across income levels, races, and geographic areas, and Deaf culture contributes just as widely to society. Being Deaf should be viewed as a valuable and unique contribution to humanity, especially in the context of linguistic and neurological diversity. American Sign Language was created out of an amalgamation of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language and French Sign Language.

There is emerging research that underscores the importance of preserving Deaf perspectives and Deaf neurodivergence. Deaf people are bilingual and bicultural by their very nature (the Deaf community is a distinct languaculture) and also have a different neurological makeup than most. This difference in the brain has to do more with the visual nature of the language and actually has benefits. Deaf people can more readily identify visual objects and are able to recruit more of their peripheral vision than most.

Deaf people communicate in a 3-D language that can benefit planning conversations. It is intuitively simpler to communicate a 3-D environment in a 3-D modality. In our roundtable conversations for Deaf Urbanism, we discuss the scale of streets and how they should look with bike lanes, streetcar lanes, and the like in only a few signs.

Imagine describing a box. You have to detail the height, the volume, the length, the color, and so on to sketch out what it looks like. In ASL, you can have your hands flat, palms facing each other — which takes less than a second. In English, it takes a multitude of words and time to describe simple visual concepts. ASL’s nature as a visual and spatial language has benefits beyond that of English and other auditory languages when it comes to planning and urbanism.

One study shows that skilled Deaf people read much faster and with better comprehension than skilled hearing readers (Belanger et al). This demonstrates that something about the neurological makeup of Deaf people or the nature of ASL has benefits beyond what has been assumed. Deaf people have much to bring to the table when it comes to neurological and linguistic contributions.

Gallaudet students studying in the Hall Memorial Building, designed according to DeafSpace guidelines. Image by Gallaudet University used with permission.

We must make cities — and urbanism — more inclusive

There are many barriers within the cultural, economic, and social contexts that Deaf people live in. Many of these barriers are not restricted to the Deaf community alone — a lot are encountered by the various cultural groups that call DC home.

For example, Deaf people often are shut out of community meetings because interpreters are not provided. That may be because it’s difficult to book one in a timely manner, because they don’t have the funds, or because they don’t consider the need. Ideally, those who run these meetings should provide sign language interpreters or have American Sign Language-fluent presenters regardless of who attends. This will create a more welcoming and inclusive environment. A similar philosophy of inclusion should apply to others from diverse backgrounds — we should also provide Spanish interpreters, for example.

There should also be liaisons in different parts of the DC government who help create policy, develop community projects, and design urban environments for Deaf people and people with disabilities. These liaisons should be Deaf and/or disabled. Creating an urban context where spaces to facilitate interaction are valued results in more opportunities: greater workforce participation, educational attainment, and a stronger sense of community and belonging.

Students inside Gallaudet's Model Secondary School for the Deaf dorm, which was completely designed and constructed with DeafSpace principles. Image by Gallaudet University used with permission.

Part of the problem is that there are very few Deaf architects and urban planners. During my work on the International Design Competition for Gallaudet University’s 6th Street project, the majority of the architecture teams that applied for the competition did not have a Deaf person in any role.

There needs to be a dialogue on a larger scale about how to increase the number of architects and urban planners from diverse communities: the Deaf community, the black community, and so forth. We should start by creating and bolstering mentorship and scholarship programs, as well as developing guidelines for cities and other organizations to have more inclusive hiring practices.

Cities and businesses should actively seek people that are Deaf and/or disabled to lead projects and to work on accessible, inclusive spaces in and around these projects. Leading organizations in urban design and thought should take notice of the contributions Deaf and diverse people can make, and work to include and support them.

Read my first post on the subject: “Deaf Urbanism can help us build more inclusive and accessible cities”