Many members of the Deaf community creatively adapt their households to suit their cultural, linguistic, and sensory preferences. In permanent and temporary ways, Deaf people transform living spaces to suit signing bodies, which emphasize vision and vibration to communicate in their physical environments. Today scholars have begun to unpack these unique design features, known as DeafSpace, and to plan and construct buildings according to these guidelines.
While hearing and non-signing people who are not adapted to these environments may be surprised to learn of these adaptations, c/kodas are often accustomed to them. In fact, many individuals raised in DeafSpace households incorporate these spatial arrangements for themselves.
1. Eye Contact
Both a linguistic and spatial principle, users of DeafSpace rely on eye contact to communicate. You may find that hearing and speaking individuals can (and often do) maintain conversation while frequently breaking eye-contact. In DeafSpaces, eye contact and visual feedback (nodding, frowning, smiling) are crucial for communicating understanding as well as an important form of spatial awareness. Modifying one’s facial expression or looking away (toward an approaching figure or other distraction) communicates important social and spatial information to the signer.
2. Communal Spaces
DeafSpace environments are often constructed or modified (by knocking down walls and moving doorways) to create rooms that serve as communal space. These rooms are often placed at the center of movement through the home, encouraging casual interaction and allowing for awareness about the movement of individuals through interior spaces. These communal spaces create and encourage visual and social connections amongst inhabitants.
3. Circular or Oval Gathering Spaces
A key feature of DeafSpace design is that sign language users maintain a direct line of sight with the members of their group. Whereas groups that communicate aurally can sit or stand with their backs to one another and carry on conversations, signing people tend to cluster in small circles or ovals. As new individuals join the group, each of the members modifies the distance between themselves to widen the circle and ensure the participation of all.
4. Vibration and Sensory Awareness
Sound is significant to the way that hearing and speaking people communicate with their environments and one another. Audible alerts from fire alarms communicate warning, shouting from another room calls attention, even the echoes of footsteps alert hearing people that someone is approaching. DeafSpaces make use of another form of sensory perception; tactile awareness. Vibration technology may be used to alert a deaf individual that the oven is ready or someone is at the door. Sign language users often use touch to call attention, a small tap on the shoulder for instance. Additionally, surface vibrations are used in DeafSpaces, as individuals often knock on tables or stomp on the floor to call attention from others. This means that those unaccustomed to DeafSpaces will need to be mindful of heavy footfalls!
5. Visual Connection and Sensory Reach
Sensory reach describes the way an individual utilizes sensory stimulus to engage with and interpret his/her/their environment. As many of us know, sound operates differently than visual cues. Whereas hearing people may speak to one another through a closed door, signing people are able to carry a conversation through a closed window, hundreds of feet apart. This means that visual communication and aural communication access different degrees of sensory reach. DeafSpaces may reflect this difference, emphasizing direct sightlines between floors and visual paths to entrances or exits.
6. Private vs. Public Communication
Hearing people modify their utterances to convey whether the message is intended for private or public audiences. For instance, a hearing individual may privately whisper to another by moving close together and lowering the volume of their voice. The same utterance may be made public by stepping back and raising one’s volume to a shout. Signers communicate privately in a number of ways, from positioning ones’ body to prevent others from viewing their signs, to manipulating signing space to produce signs that are smaller and closer to the body. In this way, deaf people can whisper to one another from across the room. At the same time, signers may make these messages public by increasing the size of their signing space, positioning his/her/their body so that it is visible to others, and stepping onto a raised platform to ensure a clear line of sight for the audience.
7. Proxemics and “Talking Space”
Different cultures have different rules for interpersonal communication. Proxemics describes these cultural rules for spatial distance in communication. Do you tend to stand closer to friends than you would strangers when conversing with them? This behavior is guided by the social conventions of proxemics. Sign language users, guided by linguistic requirements of eye contact and signing range, tend to make use of more space than those communicating aurally.
8. Visual Cues – Visual doorbell and other technological adaptations
Many built environments presume a hearing, speaking, able-bodied individual in their construction. Take microwaves and fire alarms for instance. Both produce with audible alerts that are inaccessible to people that do not hear. In a number of ways, deaf people have converted these environments to DeafSpaces using technologies that produce visual and tactile alerts, including; vibrating alarm clocks, fire alarms with rapid light flashers, videophones, and closed captioning.
While many homes prefer soft, muted lighting, you may note that DeafSpaces tend to be well-lit. Because signers must have an unobstructed view of one another to maintain a conversation, these environments tend to be illuminated by overhead or task lighting. In dark spaces, or outside at night, it is a common cultural quip that deaf people, like moths, tend to gather in the pools of light. In these spaces, signers often gravitate to well-lit zones for ease of communication.
10. Mobility and DeafSpace
The linguistic features of ASL require signers to maintain a direct line of sight with a speaker’s face and upper body. As groups of signers move through space, they arrange themselves in a grouping to maintain this sightline. Members of the group retain awareness of their surroundings by relying on the speaker to stay alert of approaching obstacles, ensuring the physical safety of their companions. Scholars suggest that this is reflective of the collectivist nature of Deaf Culture.
For more information about DeafSpace design, “DeafSpace: An Architecture toward a More Livable and Sustainable World” by Hansel Bauman in Deaf Gain; Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity offers a concise overview of these principals. Bauman and Benjamin Bahan have also penned a chapter in Fair Chance in the Race of Life; The Role of Gallaudet University in Deaf History, “The Power of Place: The Evolution of Kendall Green” which describes the historical construction of Gallaudet University as a place designed with DeafSpace principles. Bahan has also described deaf sensory worlds in his chapter “Senses and Culture: Exploring Sensory Orientations” in Deaf Gain; Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. This video provides an overview of the ways in which design at Gallaudet University has begun to incorporate DeafSpace principles.