'DeafSpace': Architecture that works for the deaf community
By Giles Gibson

Members of the deaf community often struggle in buildings and spaces designed for hearing people, unaware of fire alarms or people knocking on doors. However, architects at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., are creating spaces that break those barriers.

The university, which is dedicated to deaf and hard-of-hearing students, is known for being at the cutting edge of inclusive architecture.

Gallaudet's architectural team believes small design flaws can accumulate into significant barriers for the deaf community. For example, badly-designed entrances can interrupt conversations in American Sign Language (ASL).

"If you're walking and having a conversation with a friend, and you have to stop that conversation to open the door with a handle, you've now created a barrier. So that conversation has to stop to even enter a building. And that can also be a barrier in terms of remembering what you were even talking about," said Hansel Bauman from Gallaudet University.

Simple features like wider, automatic doors can help solve problems like that.

It's all part of a wider architectural movement called "DeafSpace" - design focused on what works best for the deaf community.

With staff and students communicating in ASL on campus, open spaces create opportunities for long-distance conversations. Interior balconies and walkways mean people can chat in ASL across different floors on different buildings.

One drawback, however, is that private chats can easily become public. 

Communicating through hand movements can also strain your eyes, so "DeafSpace" designers are careful with how they use light, color and patterns. They avoid intricate patterns for furniture and wall paint.

"That design would be considered what we call 'visual noise.' Something that's checkered, where you have a lot of things that are competing with your visual attention, we try to reduce that, so it's not as 'busy' or as 'noisy,'" said Christopher Hoffmann, another member of the university's design team.

Gallaudet's architects insist they learn something from every new building on campus. 

So more than a century after the death of its founder Edward Miner Gallaudet, the university is still creating an environment where deaf or hard-of-hearing students can excel.