According to the World Health Organisation, some 5% of the world’s population (the trifle of 466 million individuals) suffer from hearing loss problems to varying degrees. There are solutions that allow a more inclusive attitude towards the hearing-impaired, so that infrastructure is more welcoming and less difficult for them.
Gallaudet University in Washington, an internationally renowned school for the hearing-impaired, was one of the first public buildings to be designed following many of the principles of inclusive architecture. Since 2005, the faculty has developed the DeafSpace programme in collaboration with the architect Hansel Bauman. It is a portfolio of about 150 design ideas adapted to the hearing-impaired, covering areas such as orientation, touch, space and proximity, mobility, light, colours and acoustics.
DeafSpace: some examples
- The design of conference or show venues will favour semicircles or U-shapes rather than a traditional layout with rows of seats.
- Public spaces conforming to this inclusive design come with spaces to converse in sign language. For example, by widening the corridors or providing adapted conversation areas. For example, by providing a system of induction loops, which allows to hear a sound source by removing distance (in showrooms), echo phenomena or reverberation (churches).
- The current trend of no longer having a dedicated desk (hot desking) is for example not recommended, because the large rotation will prevent everyone from taking into account their colleague who is hearing-impaired.
- When designing circulation areas, it is vital to plan wide views, so that visual input can compensate for the lack of auditory information and ensure better control of the visual environment.
- Lifts will preferably have transparent walls, and offices will be equipped with glazed or at least translucent partitions, to help the hearing-impaired perceive the ongoing activity.
- Finally, inclusive design focuses on reflections (mirrors, reflective smooth surfaces) so that the hearing-impaired person can better anticipate what is happening outside their field of vision.
Reducing noise pollution
DeafSpace also offers acoustic optimisation: in public spaces (offices, administrations, communities), sound reverberations are facilitated by smooth surfaces and that can be very troublesome for someone with hearing issues. That is why it is better to use sonically absorbent materials and to limit the use of noisy machines such as percolators or speakers. In a “normal” urban space, we constantly move in a noisy universe (horns, ringtones, street noises, sirens…). Some sound signals can be replaced with colour codes, signs or text, such as in Chennai Airport, India. No announcement is made on the microphone, everything is communicated on digital displays. With, as a bonus, a significant reduction in stress and noise pollution.
Translating sound into colours
New technologies obviously play a major role in this process. The Spanish application Visualfy, for example, “translates” all sound signals into colour signals. The principle: three sensors, arranged in living spaces, identify the sounds of everyday life such as the doorbell of the front door, the phone, the microwave, an alarm clock, a crying baby or a fire alarm. And offers, on the terminal of your choice (TV, computer, smartphone…), a palette of colours, vibrations or written messages, depending on how the user customises his or her programme.
Inclusion is not about creating buildings specifically designed for the hearing-impaired: it is about imagining how to avoid segregation in our daily environment, and make it accessible and pleasant to everyone. Without any restrictions.
Video link : Derrick Behm, head of the Office of Planning and Design at Georgetown University, talks about architecture adapted to the hearing-impaired.