Most cities aren’t designed for deaf people. Sidewalks are frequently too narrow or too crowded for deaf persons engaged in a conversation that requires so-called “signing space.” Public benches are often set in rows or squares, limiting the ability of the deaf to create the “conversation circles” and open sight lines that they require. Urban landscapes are so visually stimulating that they hinder communication among people who rely on visual cues. And light fixtures may be too dim or shine directly into signers’ eyes.

These things don’t just make a deaf person’s life more challenging; they can make it dangerous. In January, three deaf people were struck by a vehicle and seriously injured in Olathe, Kansas*, as they left a deaf cultural event. The same thing happened to a deaf man last year in Sacramento.
In 2009, Deaf411, a public relations firm serving the deaf community, released a report on Deaf-Friendly Cities in the U.S., saluting places like Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Raleigh, and Denver for their efforts to accommodate the deaf or hard of hearing. But for every city on the list, countless others—including San Francisco, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Philadelphia—did not make the cut.
Now Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation’s leading institution for the deaf and hard of hearing, has produced a set of so-called DeafSpace Guidelines that address those aspects of the urban environment that inhibit communication and mobility among those who communicate with their hands. In doing so, architects and design researchers have used technology to gather information on how deaf people use public spaces and modify them to meet their needs. Campus officials say that the guidelines have already begun a dialogue that they hope will have an impact on urban development nationwide.
“The clarity with which a deaf person communicates relates to the clarity and clutter of what’s around them,” says Hansel Bauman, director of campus design and planning at Gallaudet, who led the multiyear effort to create the DeafSpace Guidelines. “Space becomes an essential part of how you communicate.”