Well known as the only American institution of higher education where all classes and services accommodate students with hearing loss, Gallaudet University also enjoys another notable credential. One of good design. As noted in a recent Washingtonian magazine feature by Amanda Kolson Hurley, the school paid attention to design from the start, with the original campus planned by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted—of Central Park and the U.S. Capitol grounds fame—and Calvert Vaux.
In 2006, the school took its attention to architectural details to a new level and created the concept of DeafSpace. Architect Hansel Bauman, whose brother Dirksen chairs Gallaudet’s Department of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies, worked with students and faculty to analyze, identify and generate ways architecture can support interaction for people with hearing loss.
Bauman designed the first building to incorporate the resulting principles—the Sorenseon Language and Communication Center opened in 2009—and showed that DeafSpace is about more than meeting the requirements of accessible design. A new dorm followed a few years later and expands on the philosophy.
“Doors that whisk open as students approach, furniture that promotes face-to-face discussion, and hallways that allow passers-by to see one another from long distances,” writes Hurley about the Sorenson Center to describe DeafSpace ideals. Abundant natural light, walls painted in colors to contrast the flesh tones of gesturing hands, a built-in horseshoe-shaped bench, roomier hallways and entryways with curved corners, open spaces with long sightlines, and ramps instead of stairs all facilitate easier communication. Whether signing or speaking, being able to see others involved in a conversation is crucial for people with hearing loss. And none of these design details stand out as being included for accessibility—it just looks and feels like good design.