DeafScape: Applying DeafSpace To Landscape

by Alexa Vaughn


DeafSpace sprang from the heart of the Deaf community at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., (1) in 2005. With the guidance of architect Hansel Bauman—who is hearing but uses American Sign Language (ASL)—the Deaf community at Gallaudet came together through courses and workshops to create radical, bilingual, and highly collaborative discourse on designing more effective campus buildings and public spaces for people who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH). (2) The resulting product is Gallaudet University's DeafSpace Design Guidelines (DSDG), an ever-evolving publication designed for use by architects, planners, and administration.

Defined by the DSDG, DeafSpace is “[a space] in which Deaf culture, in all its diverse dimensions, can thrive through full access to communication and the unique cognitive, cultural and creative dimensions of the Deaf experience are encouraged.” (3) Within a predominantly hearing world, the built environment poses many real, physical barriers to people who are Deaf, as well as people with disabilities. These barriers range widely from the absence of visual signage on public transportation to the lack of space to communicate with sign language while walking on public sidewalks.

Deaf people have spent their lives adapting to the built environment. Those who deviate from the 'norm' are expected to make adjustments to fit themselves seamlessly into society—regardless of ability—particularly in public space. As a result, the built environment is viewed as static rather than flexible. While people with disabilities have been guaranteed rights to public space through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) since 1990, these regulations are not exhaustive, and historically have given less attention to those who are Deaf and HoH. (4) With recent challenges to the ADA as we know it under H.R. 620, (5) designers must use their power to design beautiful and accessible public spaces for all. DeafSpace, and other principles of Universal Design, have the power to take the ADA a step further—celebrating the beauty of form as well as function, bringing to light the unique identities of those who are Deaf or disabled. DeafSpace asserts that the environment can be changed to create better public space for individuals that deviate from the hearing 'norm.' However, in applying DeafSpace to landscape, not just the Deaf community—but all people—serve to reap the benefits of more accessible public space.

Spatially, people in the Deaf community require enough space between individuals to sign and 360° sensory reach, dependent upon visual and tactile senses. The DSDG attempts to create a better built environment for the Deaf community through five units: "Space and Proximity," "Sensory Reach," "Mobility and Proximity," "Light and Color," and "Acoustics and Electromagnetic Interference." It must be noted that these guidelines focus upon applications for the American Deaf community. Although many guidelines were found to be cross-cultural, Deaf cultures are extremely diverse. Currently, there are over 200 sign languages in use around the world. 

As a Deaf graduate student in landscape architecture, new to the Deaf community and ASL, I wondered how I could apply DeafSpace to the larger scales of landscape and urban design. Although most of the guidelines are specifically for architectural interiors, much can be applied to the broader, exterior scales of the urban landscape. Here, I attempt to dissect the DSDG (excluding "Acoustics and Electromagnetic Interference," best suited for interior design), by selecting the guidelines that my Deaf colleagues and I have found critical for urban space. To the Deaf community, the landscape is a rich sensory experience; in the absence of sound, the visual, tactile, and even the olfactory senses are amplified. 

Image by author and Courtney Ferris.

Image by author and Courtney Ferris.


A comfortable degree of enclosure would provide a safe, semi-private space for people to see and be seen. One is able to feel secure from behind, with a view opening outward toward public activity. This can be achieved through the design of alcoves, tree planting, and design of other outdoor rooms and shelters (e.g., parklets). Derrick Behm, a Deaf graduate student in urban planning at Georgetown University, explains that he generally prefers action to happen in front of him, "with a wall or tree behind to feel subconsciously safe" and to be able to better control what goes on behind him.


Social interaction is fundamental to Deaf culture. Placing collective spaces next to high-activity areas promotes activation of these spaces by forming both physical and visual connection. Nodes are central connecting points and intersections along main areas of circulation, which promote spontaneous social interaction as people move from place to place. Eddies are located along the edges of major pathways and can provide space for conversation and people-watching; an eddy can be scaled for different uses and serves as a degree of enclosure in public space. Both nodes and eddies can be applied to busy city sidewalks to provide space off of the main path for conversation, limiting obstructive incidents and allowing for space to sign.


Critical to DeafSpace is the provision of freedom of movement for communication, with minimal hazards. Wider pathways can accommodate for signers to converse while walking. Dependent on place, pathways should allow for enough room for two or more people to sign; typically, smaller corridors should be a minimum of seven to eight feet wide to accommodate two signers, while public sidewalks should be a minimum of ten feet wide to accommodate for several groups of signers (and others) to pass through easily. 'Shoulder Zones' act as dedicated buffer zones parallel to busy urban sidewalks and streets; they should include areas for eddies as well as street signage, lighting, and plantings. The pedestrian pathway should be kept clear of barriers and should always be designed with visual dominance and safety lighting, particularly at busy vehicular intersections. Matthew Sampson, also a Deaf graduate student in urban planning at Georgetown University, describes curb bump-outs—or areas where sidewalks bulb out at busy intersections—as "a way of reclaiming pedestrian land, putting pedestrians in the driver's field of view," which creates the visual security required by those who are Deaf as well as security for other pedestrians. Ramps are preferred by many in the Deaf community and can prevent barriers to conversation and tripping hazards posed by stairs. They should be kept wide as pathways to accommodate for visual conversation. 


Shared sensory reach is deeply rooted practice in Deaf culture. Visual cues can aid people who are Deaf to safely use and travel through public space. View corridors can visually connect different parts of a larger public realm, creating a visible hierarchy that can be achieved topographically and through the planting of trees. Landmarks and placement of design elements can also aid in orientation within a larger space. Danielle Koplitz, a Deaf graduate student in architecture at the University of Texas, notes the use of topography "to show transition from one space to another" and "indicate important buildings or a change in the purpose of space" on her campus in Austin. Textured transitions provide subtle cues to differentiate between edges of the ground plane and thresholds, as well as safety cues along the edge of curbs, which are crucial for the DeafBlind community. Easing and eliminating curbs in public spaces can also limit tripping hazards and provide more access to people who use wheelchairs or strollers. Rhythm can be employed in the landscape to provide continuous, recognizable visual references and alignment for signers. Tree placement (and canopy) is especially important in creating a visible pattern in the urban landscape along sidewalks. According to Sean Maiwald, a Deaf graduate student in public policy at The George Washington University, "immediate visual indicators of space" are crucial and should allow for wayfinding and understanding of use, "especially at a quick glance." Color (e.g., planting, façades, signage) can provide contrast for signing as well as visual orientation for wayfinding in busy urban hubs.


Transparency is primarily applied to building interiors and windows, but creating flow between interior and exterior—extending the line of sight outdoors—allows for greater use, understanding, and connection to the surrounding landscape. Reflection can be applied to many landscape and urban materials (e.g., stone, metal, wood) to create subtle clues about surrounding activity. Materials should not be overly reflective to avoid undesirable glare. Natural lighting and night lighting should be maximized to prevent eye strain, but shaded exterior paths are also crucial for glare-free comfort on sidewalks, which can be achieved with tree canopies and overhangs.  


Furniture, too, plays an important role in the Deaf community’s use of the public realm. Flexible seating that is light, durable, and movable allows for accommodation of small to large groups of people joining in signed conversation. Circular or U-shaped tables and chairs allow for a sustained line of sight. Fixed seating and pedestals (e.g., low-rise walls and planter edges) at different heights allow for places to set down belongings, which can be obstructive to signing. Both types of seating encourage mixed social use and can be applied in various forms to parks and plazas within the urban landscape. 


(1)   Gallaudet University is the only university in the world designed for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students and provides bilingual education in English and American Sign Language. Three of my colleagues quoted here (Behm, Maiwald, and Koplitz) are alumni of Gallaudet and contributed to DeafSpace in various forms and stages over the years, from conception to application.

(2)   Deafness is a spectrum: Deaf with a capital 'D' describes individuals that identify with a central deaf, cultural identity and who primarily use sign language. Hard of Hearing (HoH) describes individuals with some degree of hearing. Hearing impaired is an unacceptable medical term to the Deaf community; it carries a negative connotation, views Deafness as an impediment to well-being, and invalidates Deaf language and culture. Furthermore, DeafBlind describes individuals who are both deaf and blind, with a unique cultural identity of their own.   

(3)   Bauman, Hansel. DeafSpace Design Guidelines, Volume 1. Hansel Bauman Architect (Working Draft). 2010. Print.

(4)   The ADA has focused on visual emergency systems (e.g., strobe alarms) in places like hotels and real-time captioning in stadiums for the Deaf and HoH.

(5)   H.R. 620 (The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017), if passed, will provide amnesty for access violators, allowing businesses to ignore ADA requirements until notified by a person with a disability, indefinitely. The burden is thus shifted to the person experiencing access discrimination, causing loss of civil rights to public space granted by the ADA of 1990.