Corners — I get very nervous whenever I come across any corners or blind spots in a building. I always fear that I may end up bumping into someone out of nowhere or getting hurt accidentally. This makes me wonder how people with disabilities generally manage to cope in public spaces which ideally shouldn’t be a place to avoid, but an inclusive place for all types of people. As an architect especially, I view these structural inadequacies in a whole new light and feel strongly about the need to overcome these issues so that a wider range of people can benefit from these positive changes in public spaces.
Being hearing-impaired from birth, the struggle is real because this type of disability often seems less obvious to others as it is not seen identifiable at first glance. Coming from a populated country like India, worried about the risks associated with my lack of sound awareness, I consciously avoided crowds. Who knew that a simple interaction in a crowded piazza would make one be so nervous before passing through? I often have faced isolation in public spaces. It’s as if I am physically present, but at the same time, I do not exist, for the social cues are often hard for me to pick up, especially when surrounded by more than three people at the same time. Walking and talking simultaneously is generally very hard for me to do as it is not easy to follow the conversation as well as keep tabs on my surroundings. The genuine openness that I desire often gets lost in an outdoor conversation or while walking around indoors.
These pessimistic experiences over time tend to have a major impact on the quality of life and work efficacy which leads to cognitive and emotional problems. Generally, if the situational setting was poorly lit, noisy, and there are minimal cues from the surroundings, the normal person would have some difficulty to a varying personal extent. Whereas, my hearing-impaired friends have often told me about how they felt negative or self-conscious in their environment for not being able to cope up socially in their classrooms or offices. These seemingly normal situations like being in a conference room with a long rectangular table, walking down the stepped atrium with someone else, candlelit dinner at a restaurant, or going for walks in the parks after sunset can often fill the hesitating hearing impaired person with a lot of insecurity. Thus, what may seem difficult to the normal person would end up being magnified for hearing-impaired folk.
In that sense, it is better to build spaces in a positive open manner such as by making the conference room round so that everyone can face each other and communicate easily or by making the public corridors wide enough and having fewer pathway obstacles so as not to obstruct the flow of conversation while walking through. Sharp corners should also be replaced by rounded corners in communal zones so that the turns are not sudden and abrupt. A perfect balance of lighting should be there in crucial public spaces. In addition to exterior public areas, the pedestrian walkway can be a minimum of two meters wider to reduce the chance of bumping into pedestrians or bicycles. There shouldn’t be any obstructions in vision within partition walls or furniture in interior social gathering rooms. Furniture height should be positioned below the standing eye-level. Basically, the thumb rule for public spaces is that everything should be cohesive with pleasing aesthetics as well as warm harmony of visual patterns, proper signage, and muted color palette while still catering to the comfort of one and all.
The beauty of architecture is that it can be used as a medium to connect people, tackle social issues, or to help to focus on the comfort factor by suiting people’s needs and requirements. Even if not for hearing-impaired people exclusively, few basic architectural changes like diffused lighting, visually appealing color themes, a wide range of vision, etc., can go a long way for everyone. It is really encouraging to know that just reimagining the space can truly make communication much easier in public urban spaces for the hearing-impaired society. After all, being alive is a multi-sensory experience that no one should be deprived of enjoying.
- How Gallaudet University’s architects are redefining deaf space by Amanda Kolson Hurley (March 2, 2016) https://www.curbed.com/2016/3/2/11140210/gallaudet-deafspace-washington-dc
- Gallaudet University_ DeafSpace: https://www.gallaudet.edu/campus-design-and-planning/deafspace
- The rise of deaf architecture by Matthew Davis, (September 2019): https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/magazine/wp/2019/09/12/feature/the-rise-of-deaf-architecture/