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Path of Travel Considerations – for the Deaf Community & Others


Janis Kent, Architect, FAIA, CASp © September, 2016

One of the things we learn as designers and architects is how to organize, design, and incorporate way-finding thru axis and focal points. We learn about the more formal architecture with its linear and direct arrangements of space versus the informal with its cluster arrangements and less direct connections. We also learn much more about design for the mobility impaired. Since mobility issues directly affect the architectural environment, it is better defined in building codes and federal regulations with a multitude of requirements. For the Deaf Community – which is an inclusive term for those who might be fully deaf to hard-of-hearing and communicate by signing, lip reading, and/or using technology devices – we generally think in terms of placing visual alarms or sound attenuated devices, since this is what is required, and mostly for interior environments.

What we may not realize, is that the principals of good design also have great impact on those who are Deaf or are Hard of Hearing (HOH). For the Deaf community a visual path is critical. Understanding and creating circulation nodes leading to or at destination points assists in navigation by providing visual indicators along the route. The Deaf community relies heavily on visual clues which is very much what we deal with as architects and designers. This is why I personally find it very perplexing, that when we think of Access for this segment of our population we think in terms of technical electronic-type aids, not visual architectural elements. If I am deaf, I rely on my sight as well as visual clues. So rather than thinking of this disability as lacking hearing, think of it more with an emphasis on Seeing.

What is interesting is that we are required to have maneuvering nodes every certain distance for wheelchair users. There is an overlap where these nodes can also be useful for the Deaf community, allowing a place to have conversations off of the circulation route where people can stop and face each other to communicate. Having these nodes evenly lit without glare is important if you need to see faces and body language in order to ‘talk’. And for our aging population, these nodes can also provide resting places. For these purposes, the nodes are helpful if placed more often and if they are enlarged. Whether one signs or lip-reads, having a space for conversation where people would need to face and see each other to interact without blocking the circulation path is critical.

These spaces or nodes are also helpful for resting spaces or turning around if in a chair. Give consideration to placing pedestals, shelves, or other elements for placing items while resting or conversing. It not only helps people who sign and need both hands to communicate, but it also helps the elderly where they may want to rest a moment from what they are carrying and can not easily bend down to place the objects on the ground.

Designing to intuitively understand a site and building interiors, for way-finding for the Deaf also helps in navigating for the mobility impaired. The more clarity we have for moving from one point to the other helps all of us even if we do not have a disability. For those who have a disability there is a much greater reliance on these intrinsic communication elements within our environment.

There are many visual clues that we can provide for way finding other than just signage. While this is necessary for one group, and beneficial for another, it actually assists all of us. It is a slightly different approach and emphasis for design. But this takes some understanding of how different populations actually interact and use space. And this is not something clearly spelled out by codes and regulations. It requires thinking outside of the box. With our population of about 2.5% being Deaf or HOH increasing to 15% when 65 or older, and our elderly population of 36%-40%, this is something we just might want to consider.

Be aware that your local City or County may have additional requirements that are more restrictive and providing greater access than the State or Federal requirements. Also, this article is an interpretation and opinion of the writer. It is meant as a summary – current original regulations should always be reviewed when making any decisions.

© Janis Kent, Architect, FAIA, CASp 2016