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 In Accessibility, Universal Design

by Julia Garofalo | Intern Architect / Access Planner

As an undergraduate student, I initially majored in Deaf Studies to be a sign language interpreter. Each semester, ASL students had to attend at least one deaf event to interact with members of the Deaf Community. I distinctly remember attending a comedy show featuring a deaf comedian. The comedian would sign his joke while on stage and the interpreter would translate into the intercom for the hearing audience members. First the deaf people in the audience would laugh, since they understood the joke in real time. Next came the hearing people, after the joke was translated over the speakers. Then finally the deaf-blind people would laugh after their personal interpreters signed the joke directly into their palms. Imagine this constant wave of laughter caused by the delayed transfer of a single joke. There were three types of people in the same room experiencing the same thing, but each person experienced it in vastly different ways. That is the essence of Universal Design.

As a graduate student pursuing my Master’s degree in Architecture, I find that when my peers hear the term Universal Design they immediately confine its scope to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A stigma is created that deforms this multifaceted discipline into a checklist of mandated requirements. Universal Design goes beyond slapping a ramp on the side of a building and calling it a day. It strives to design for everyone in various circumstances and phases of life.[1] This scope includes not only the deaf, blind, and mobility-impaired, but also the elderly, arthritic, autistic, and mentally ill. What is important to understand about Universal Design is that it is not a specialty within architecture, but something that all architects should strive to achieve. The principles used in Universal Design can also be employed for “temporary disabilities”. For example, ramps and automatic doors are just as useful to pregnant women and athletes with injuries. Why are we not designing with this in mind?

Let’s examine one of my favorite building designs. Gallaudet University in Washington, DC is “the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students”[2]. The university’s in-house architect Hansel Bauman started a project called DeafSpace. It continually strives to make spaces more comfortable for their students. Communication through sign language puts constant strain on the eyes, so classrooms are painted blue and the windows diffuse light to avoid dark shadows. Line of sight is just as important in the hallways. When two people are signing with each other, one person is simultaneously on the lookout for obstacles such as doors or steps. Automatic doors became the obvious solution to avoid collisions. Even the placement of air conditioners is carefully planned so that the noise does not cause hearing aid interference. In summary, the main concepts of DeafSpace are avoidance of eye strain, safe circulation, and noise reduction. The hearing population can undoubtedly benefit from these same design choices.

During a lecture last semester, I discovered that many of my peers preferred that buildings and spaces are immediately able to be correlated with the architect who designed them. Many argued that their main driver for pursuing architecture was to develop their own recognizable design style. While this is certainly one of my own desires, it is not my sole purpose or goal. Perhaps this is the reason I am one of the few (if not the only) students within my school to be fully dedicated to designing with accessibility at the forefront. Universal Design requires ingenuity on the part of the designer, not solely within technical feasibility, but in fully immersing oneself in the experiences of others. We must be the deaf comedians of design, conveying our thoughts within the exciting variability of human experience.

[1] Hubert Froyen, Universal Design: A Methodological Approach (2012), pg. 15.

[2] Gallaudet University, (accessed August 15, 2017).