Designing for the Deaf-Blind is a Unique Challenge

 

Post by George Balsley, AIA

George has worked in the field of architecture for over 30 years in all types of building design, core & shell design, production and technical specifications.  His diversified background includes residential, educational, commercial and healthcare architecture.  Using his lifelong experience with deafness, he created a new specialty called Designing for the Deaf and has been involved in the field of universal design.  It’s a movement that calls for design for all inclusive or lifespan design. 

In my architectural work on deaf design and universal design, I encounter many different situations that call for many different solutions. When I move into the realm of deaf-blind facilities, for example, I often grasp for self-education, performing independent research and talking to deaf-blind individuals. I find that, like everything else, there is no one set of simple design principles or solutions, as it varies from project to project.

My research has put me in contact with institutions like the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point, New York, and the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. When I’ve asked these organizations whether they use certain design guidelines, both have said that there are none, except for a few common-sense ideas that help their occupants move around in space.

Unfortunately, there is currently no published literature to help architects design for the deaf-blind community. However, we do know what their basic needs are to get around. Below is a list of key considerations that I’ve gathered through my experience on previous projects. These basic environmental factors can help the deaf-blind community to function more independently and can help architects initiate conversations with their clients to derive the most effective design solutions for their constituents.

Key design considerations could include:

  • Using light/dark color contrasts, which can make doors and stairs easier for those who have partial sight capabilities. Contrasts help people define boundaries between edges and will enhance residual vision.
  • Selecting surfaces that reduce or avoid glare, such as non-skid, non-glare flooring and non-glare wax.
  • Choosing appropriate background colors. Stripes, plaids, and patterns could be visually confusing and over-stimulating as backgrounds for visual communication. Bright colors are encouraged.

Space planning strategies:

  • Avoid the use of curved walls, which can be disorienting.
  • Minimize the use of columns outside of walls. Since deaf-blind occupants will use walking sticks to feel along the wall’s base, if they run into a column it can confuse their spatial perception. At a project at Gallaudet, for example, we extended this base from the wall to the column so that individuals could feel their way around.
  • Closet and cupboard doors should be self-closing in order to minimize accidents. All doors should be fully opened or closed, never left halfway closed, in order to prevent accidents.
  • Bedroom closets should be well lit.
  • Nightlights should be used in bedrooms, hallways, and bathrooms.
  • Careful placement of light switches (from doorways and near beds) and electrical outlets should be considered.
  • Televisions should be kept away from lamps or windows.
  • Furniture should be placed away from main traffic pathways.
  • Bathroom features should be maximized for ease of sight and use, including: toilet seats in contrast with toilet (ex: a black seat); contrasting non-skid tape or a mat placed at bottom of the tub; and extra lighting over the tub or shower.

Furniture selection:

  • Edges of tables should be of contrasting color from the table surfaces.
  • Sofas and armchairs should have skirts that extend down to the floor, with no exposed legs. Shadows caused by legs can be confusing for deaf-blind residents.
  • Strong contrasts between edges of chairs to the floor.
  • Countertop colors should contrast with base cabinets so that countertops can be seen quickly.

Emergency alert systems:

While there is no set of guidelines for deaf-blind facilities, a few recommended solutions can help the owner, electrical and A/V consultants, and the architect develop the best possible system for the space:

  • For deaf-blind facilities, individuals should carry pagers that vibrate in response to fire alarm systems.
  • Bed vibrators should be tied to fire alert systems for when residents are sleeping.
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