Episode 50- DeafSpace
WEST WING CLIP: Mind if we walk and talk?
ROMAN MARS: If you’ve ever seen an episode of the TV show, “The West Wing,” you probably know one of its trademark scene: the walk-and-talk scene.
WEST WING CLIP
RM: The show is filled with these scenes – two staffers at the White House walk through the halls, talking through some government policy, or political plot point…often the dialogue isn’t particularly exciting on its own, but add motion, and you’ve got compelling frickin’ television.
WEST WING CLIP
RM: But after you watch a few episodes, you might notice something: the characters almost never look at each other in these scenes. They mostly look straight ahead.
RM: There’s a good reason for this: when people walk and talk, they don’t NEED to look at each other. WE use our eyes to navigate, and our ears to listen.
TOM DRIESBACH: But that doesn’t work if you’re deaf.
RM: That’s out reporter today, Tom Driesbach. He went to Galludet University in Washington, D.C. to talk to a researcher named Robert Sirvage.
TD: Gallaudet is the only university in the world designed entirely for the deaf and hard of hearing. Robert is deaf himself, and he’s been looking into this question of how deaf people walk-and-sign. He told me about his latest experiment:
ROBERT SIRVAGE (via CAROLYN WEESLER): So I’m doing a comparative study with two people who are speaking walking down H Street…
RM: Wait, that doesn’t sound like a Robert- –
TD: Yeah, that’s actually the voice of CAROLYN RESSLER…she’s an interpreter at Gallaudet.
RM: Carry on..
ROBERT SIRVAGE: So I’m doing a comparative study with two people who are speaking walking down H Street…two hearing dyads who have a camera mounted on their head, and two deaf dyads with this camera on their heads
RM: “Dyad” is just a fancy term in sociology for a pair of people.
TD: So Robert put cameras on these two pairs of people – hearing and deaf, and had them walk down the street. And he did this, so he could precisely monitor what people LOOK at when they walk and talk, versus when they walk and sign.
RS: two hearing people look straight ahead the whole time they were walking. You might see just a few seconds, very rare seconds, when the person would look at the person the other person who they were walking beside and speaking. They wouldn’t ever make eye contact, one would look at the other. Whereas with the deaf people, there was a continuous maintained eye contact.
TD: So, because American Sign Language is a visual language, it requires constant eye contact.
RM: But maintaining eye contact also means you can’t pay full attention to any obstacles up ahead.
TD: That’s a problem if you’re walking.
RS: I mean, I guess if you could think about yourself as a person who can hear. If you weren’t looking at the road as you were driving and looking at your passenger as you’re driving down the road, you can imagine how difficult that might be to mediate your car down the road. Well, the same kind of things happen with deaf people. But we watch out for one another.
RM: For walking and signing to work, the people holding a conversation need to keep an eye out for obstacles.
TD: But it’s not like deaf people make a deal at the beginning of a conversation: you talk, I’ll be the lookout.
RS: When deaf people are looking at one another, there’s an agreement. An internal agreement, an unspoken agreement, that’s understood between the two people conversing.
TD: It’s almost like you’re in a kind of dance…
RS: That’s exactly it. I think it’s exactly what you’re saying. When you’re dancing, you work with your partner, with the way you breath and move your body and you respond accordingly. The same thing holds true of deaf people in a conversation
RM: When designing buildings, most hearing architects are NOT thinking about providing a venue for that dance
TD: Robert says a lot of spaces are too narrow and confining for a good conversation…
RS: There’s this sense that buildings were not designed in such a way that they accommodate deaf people. So how does that feel? I guess the best way to say it is that we feel like sardines
TD: That’s actually also true of many buildings at Gallaudet University, even though it’s dedicated to teaching the deaf and hard of hearing. It’s a relatively old campus…a lot of the buildings were built in the mid-1800s, and it looks a typical northeastern liberal arts college.
RM: But there are signs that this school is different than your Wesleyans or Amhersts or whatever…
TD: Take, for example, the doorbells on campus. Nowadays, people use lights – you can flick a light switch and let someone know you’re at the door. But in the 1800s…before electric light…they used vibration. The university has a display of an old doorbell – it’s about four feet high, with a round, metal handle attached to a chain. At the other end of that chain is a lead weight.
HB: You’d arrive at the door, and you’d simply pull the chain PULLS CHAIN, RELEASES…so with that hit to the floor. I mean, we’re listening to the chain, but with that hit to the floor, you’d immediately get it SNAPS FINGER someone’s at the door.
TD: That’s Hansel Bauman. He’s now the director of design and planning at Gallaudet.
RM: Bauman is not deaf and in this case that is his voice.
TD: And this was one of the really cool, but kind of anachronistic innovations at Gallaudet. But several years ago, the University realized some of its standards of architecture and innovation had slipped. So they asked Hansel to help lead a group project that would rethink the campus design with deaf people in mind. The campus took those ideas and poured them into the design of a new building, called the Sorenson Language and Communication Center. It was built in 2008. And they’re working on a new dorm. Hansel Bauman showed me around, and there a lot of little innovations …some that come to mind immediately, like the type of doors. If you’re walking and signing, a normal door will stop your conversation.
DOOR AMBI// HB: you’ll notice we just passed through two sliding doors. The sliding doors are purposely designed to allow people to continue a signed conversation as they enter the building. so you don’t stop, open the door, and start the conversation again.
TD: And there are more subtle changes. One of the big parts behind Deaf Space (Deaf space definition digression) is avoiding eye strain. When you communicate all day with your eyes, it’s easy to get tired.
HB: So if you have bad lighting conditions, for example, which is backlighting, glare, high contrast between dark spaces and light spaces…there are conditions in the environment that tend to visually vibrate. Like if you have horizontal blinds and you and eye strain really wears people out
TD: I’ve actually noticed that myself, when I looked at horizontal blinds and got that vibration. And I thought I was just weird.
RM: I don’t think you’re weird, Tom.
TD: So the Sorenson building avoids those traps. It has enormous windows and a lot of diffuse light, to reduce shadows.
HB: it’s still kind of filled with a lot of this diffuse light. There’s not a lot of shadows on the face, there’s not a lot of distractions from the surfaces behind us.
TD: And when we walked by a classroom, Hansel pointed inside at the color scheme
HB: The color of the blue classroom. That’s a color we’ve been experimenting with as a good contrast to a range of skin tones. You can just so clearly see sign language in there
TD: Not all of the changes worked. In the building’s design they decided to round off sharp corners. If you can’t hear footsteps from around the corner, a lot of times you won’t know someone’s coming at all. And people bump into each other. So they rounded off some of the corners…
HB: A lesson learned. We realized that people now that people kind of hug that corner like a race car, and you still kind of have that problem.
TD: The building is definitely pleasant to look at, the color scheme is nice, the light is pleasing…but as someone who can hear, I probably would not have noticed a lot of these little changes if Hansel hadn’t pointed them out. But after walking around with Hansel, the most striking thing about the building was the level of thoughtfulness – everything in the building seems to have a specific thought behind it: Chairs are on wheels, so you can constantly rearrange them in circles, the benches are made of wood so you can better feel the vibrations, and try to strategically place air conditioners so they don’t make as much noise. That’s because hearing aids can pick up that sound in a really jarring way.
HB: I think the window that the deaf experience offers to architects is to provide us with a new kind of awareness into what’s working and not working in a room, that we might accept every day as just kind of our condition and not be aware of it.
TD: That’s why everyone involved in the Deaf Space project says it is NOT just for deaf people.
RM: Fundamentally this is about universal design. Designing for the widest range of people possible with a variety of abilities, because it’s not only more inclusive, it’s demonstrably better design, regardless of need. When OXO and Smart Design collaborated on making a potato peeler for people arthritis, they created a peeler with an ergonomic, fat black handle that turned out to be better for everyone. Now you see that application everywhere. Designing for the deaf may be more subtle, but if we mitigate eye strain and hearing aid interference from air conditioners, there’s no telling how much better everyone’s life would be.