Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible.
“Do you mind if I talk to you while we walk?”
RM: If you’ve ever seen an episode of the TV show The West Wing, you probably know one if its trademark scenes. The walk and talk.
“You going to this meeting?”
“Yeah. WW160. You going to be able to find it?”
“I don’t even know where I am right now…”
RM: The West Wing is filled with these. Two staffers in the White House walk through the halls talking about some government policy or political plot point. The dialogue isn’t necessarily exciting on its own, but add a little motion and you’ve got some compelling frickin’ television!
“Well, we may as well get used to having meetings in the quarters from now on. It may be our only hope.”
“I now know why they made the oval office a special shape.”
RM: But after you watch a few episodes you might notice something. The characters almost never look at each other. They mostly look straight ahead.
“Do you mind if I talk to you while we walk?”
RM: And 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. We use our ears to listen.
Tom Dreisbach (TD): But that doesn’t work if you’re deaf.
RM: That’s our reporter today, Tom Dreisbach. He went to Gallaudet University in Washington,
DC to talk to a researcher named Robert Sirvage.
TD: Gallaudet University 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 deaf people walk and sign. He told me about his latest experiment.
Robert Sirvage (RS): So I’m doing a comparative study between people who are speaking, walking along 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 then.
RS: So I’m doing a comparative study between people who are speaking, walking along H Street. Walking together and speaking to one another, so two hearing dyads with the same kind of camera on their head, and then two deaf dyads who have this camera mounted on their head.
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 he had them walk down the street. And he did this so he could precisely monitor what people look at when they talk versus when they walk inside. And he found very clear differences.
RS: Two hearing people look straight ahead the whole time they were walking. You might see just a few seconds, a few very rare seconds when the person would look at the people they were walking beside and speaking. They wouldn’t ever make eye contact- one would look at the other, whereas with deaf people it was 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: And that’s a problem if you’re walking.
RS: I mean I guess if you can 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 kinds of things happen with deaf people, but we watch out for one another.
RM: For walking and signing to work, the people holding the 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, unspoken agreement, that’s understood between the two people conversing.
TD: It’s almost like the people, when you’re in a conversation, you’re in a kind of dance where you’re not discussing what’s happening between each other but you just sort of know what the next move should be.
RS: That’s exactly it. When you’re dancing you’re kind of working with your partner- the way they breathe the way they move their body and you respond accordingly. The same thing holds true with deaf people in a conversation.
RM: When they’re designing buildings, most hearing architects are not thinking about providing a venue for this 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 that is that we feel like sardines. You know? Like we’re all lined up one after the next and we’re trying to converse in that way and there’s no ease in our communication.
TD: It’s actually also true that 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 buildings were built in the mid-1800s, and it looks like a typical northeastern liberal arts college.
RM: But there are signs that this school is different than your Wesleyans or your Amhersts or whatever.
TD: Take for examples the doorbells on campus. Nowadays people use lights. You can flick a light switch and let somebody know that 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 middle handle attached to a chain. And at the other end of that chain is a lead weight.
Hansel Bauman (HB): You’d arrive at the door and you’d simply pull the chain. With that hit to the floor, I mean, we’re listening to the chain, but that hit to the floor, you’d immediately get it- 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: This was one of the really cool but kind of anachronistic innovations at Gallaudet. Several years ago, the university realized that 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. They called the project “DeafSpace.”
HB: DeafSpace really started at the beginning of time. Whenever there are deaf people there is this idea of DeafSpace. Deaf people have sensibilities of adapting their world to their way of being.
TD: The campus took those ideas and poured them into the design of a new building called the Sorenson Language and Communication Center. But everyone calls it the SLCC. It was built in 2008, and they’re also working on a new dorm. Hansel Bauman showed me around and I saw that there are 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 cold.
HB: Notice we just padded 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, start the conversation again.
TD: And then there are more subtle changes. One of the big ideas behind DeafSpace is avoiding eye strain. That’s because 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 which can visually vibrate. Like for example if you have horizontal blinds and light coming through the blinds, you’ll start getting vibrations. All those annoyances, in and of themselves my not be so bad, but taken together over the time of day, it’s the beginning of eye strain. And eye strain really wears people out, basically.
TD: I’ve actually noticed that myself. Like when I look at horizontal blinds and get that kind of eye 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 diffused light to reduce shadows. While you have some direct light coming in, it’s still kind of filled with this diffuse quality of light. There’s really not a lot of shadows on the face. There’s not a lot of distraction on 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 big contrast to a range of skin tones. You can so clearly see sign language in there, in the room, better than you can next door.
TD: Not all of the changes worked. In the building’s design, they decided to round off sharp corners. That’s because 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 these corners.
HB: Again, a lesson learned. We didn’t realize that people now hug that curved corner like a racecar and you still kind of have that problem. So our strategy now is to create glass corners that allow you to kind of see through the corner but still extend that period of time that you have before you get to the corner.
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, and they made benches out of wood because you can feel vibrations more easily through the wood. And they try to strategically place air conditioning units so they don’t make as much noise. That’s because it turns out that hearing aids can pick up that sound in a really jarring way. And for Hansel, working on DeafSpace has meant becoming sensitive to a range of issues that he had never thought of before.
HB: I think the window that the deaf experience offers to architects is to provide us with a new kind of awareness around what’s working and what’s not working in a room that we might accept every day as just kind of our condition and we’re not aware of it. It’s not in front of us in a way that we can name what’s the aggravation in the room, or the environmental stressor. We don’t have a way to recognize that, where I think it’s a part of the everyday deaf experience.
TD: That’s why everyone involved in the DeafSpace project says it is not just for deaf people.
RM: Fundamentally this is about universal design. Design for the widest range of people possible with a variety of abilities. Because not only is it more inclusive, it’s demonstrably better designed, regardless of need. When Oxo and Smart Design collaborated on making a potato peeler for people with arthritis, they created a new peeler with an ergonomic, big 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 aide interference from air conditioners, there’s no telling how much better everyone’s life would be.