Thursday, June 12, 2014

Universal: DeafSpace

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One of the great joys of listening to WGBH-Boston late at night or early in the morning is the variety of programs it airs as part of PRX: Public Radio Exchange. This is a digest of some of the best radio journalism from stations all over the United States. This morning it introduced me to a very spatial program -- 99% Invisible -- a "tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world." It started as a collaboration between KALW and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

The first episode I heard is #50 -- of over a hundred so far. DeafSpace describes innovation at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, where architects carefully studied the ways deaf people experience space, in particular the spatial implications of conversing in American Sign Language. It turns out that doors, windows, window treatments, wall colors, and even the shapes of hallway corners can be designed in ways that better serve people who are deaf or others using ASL.

As the story makes clear, improving accessibility for some people often improves it for most people. This is a beautiful illustration of the principle of universal design, since the results make a more pleasant and useable space for people with any level of hearing. Truly universal design benefits not only a wide range of people, but also any given person over a wider span of her or his lifetime, as abilities change over years of living.

The story starts where the design of buildings or outdoor spaces should -- with careful observation and deep discussion with users. For more than a generation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has required that buildings meet certain minimum requirements for accessibility. But it is easy to find -- even in brand-new buildings such as the one in which I teach -- examples of construction that meets the letter of the law but that is not genuinely accessible. Taking the time to avoid these shortcomings can make indoor or outdoor spaces better for all people who use them.

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