Universal Design includes DeafSpace Design

Two people walk down a ramp signing to each other. DeafSpace Architecture.

Ramps are not just good for wheeled mobility devices, they are good for people who communicate by signing. DeafSpace Design means a few extra tweaks in a universal design approach to design thinking. Examples of DeafSpace Design are few and far between. One reason they are hard to find is because the term “DeafSpace” is not used in design briefs. Nevertheless, aspects of DeafSpace Design are sometimes included without fanfare. 

Julia Coolen explains how DeafSpace design is, or could be, integrated into general universal design principles. She explains which design aspects are particular to people who sign and/or lip read. Images help with the explanations. 

The example of the ramp is a case in point. Importantly, the width of the ramp should allow two people to walk side by side so they can continue signing. Steps and stairways interrupt their vision and therefore their conversation. Coolen discusses three principles: Mobility and Proximity, Space and Proximity, and Sensory Reach.

The title of the article is, DeafSpace and Disability: A research into DeafSpace design and its peculiarities in relation to other architectural adaptations for disabilities.  It is an open access thesis, which is relatively short with text that is to the point. The university page has a link to the PDF at the bottom of the page.

If you prefer to get a quick grab of the concepts, watch the video featuring Gallaudet University. 


Throughout history the built environment has mostly been designed from an able-bodied perspective, which causes a set of challenges for people with disabilities. In the 20th century however, a growing attention for disability in architecture took place that resulted in a shift in architecture. This thesis focusses on DeafSpace design and how architecture has historically responded to the need to design for people with disabilities. This leads to the research question of this thesis: What makes design for DeafSpace so special compared to other architectural adaptations for other disabilities?

By analysing three buildings that follow the DeafSpace design principles, this thesis shows what makes DeafSpace special compared to other architectural adaptations for other disabilities. DeafSpace concerns design principles that go beyond the mere application of a ramp for wheelchairs. DeafSpace creates spaces that benefit ‘every-body’, it refuses the ‘normalisation’ and ‘standardisation’ of the able-bodied perspective.

It is about creating awareness and it seeks to design and improve spaces to be functional for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. In saying so, it is to be concluded that, in contrast with its name, DeafSpace and its five design principles—Space and Proximity, Mobility and Proximity, Sensory Reach, Light and Colour, and Acoustics—are beneficial to ‘every-body’.

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