In advance of the rebuild

This is part (!) of an email to the architects of the new build for the Exeter Deaf Academy. Here just as a go-to list of key features of Deaf buildings and why they are important.

We need (and this applies across the build because it is about creating a deaf (visual) environment):

  • Glass panels in the doors, with blinds inside to obscure them during sessions.
  • Flashing light doorbells on every door.
  • Flashing light alarms for fire which are of a decent size and actually distractingly visible when they go off (unlike the tokenistic ineffective little strobes we currently have and which you have to be looking directly at to notice them flashing.)

Beyond that, it is important that the building continually reminds hearing people in it that it is a Deaf environment – that is, visual rather than hearing impaired. I used to work in the Deaf-aware conversion of Old Church on Bedford Hill in Balham at National Deaf Services part of South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust. It had its shortcomings due to being crammed into the shell of a small church, but it was remarkable for the ways in which it felt Deaf to deaf people (ie didn't endlessly confront them with loss of hearing) and reminded hearing people of its status as a Deaf venue. It had, from memory:

  • A signing receptionist behind glass with no speech grille (!... Bold, I thought.)
  • A pay minicom in reception. Nobody used it, but it was a stark visual reminder of who the service was designed around. Minicoms are defunct these days really, but the principle is enlightening.
  • Holograms opposite the lift doors on each floor with a deaf person signing “GROUND FLOOR” etc. Such signs contain  movement. So did the holograms.
  • Sprung wooden flooring such that people entering the room behind you could be felt walking in.
  • Apparently, the paint on the walls was of a colour suitable for most people with Ushers Syndrome (common in the Deaf community) and, this could be either magic or b.s.,  seemingly went some way to dissipating bold shadows.
  • NONE of the chairs had arms (restricts signing).
  • Some (!) decent flashing light alarms.
  • Flashing light ‘doorbells’ for every office.
  • Vertically slatted blinds (that broke endlessly to be honest) that enabled sun glare to be reduced without reducing the light completely.
  • All light sources were either indirect (bounced off of walls) or diffuse, reducing shadowing.
  • All light sources could be quickly switched off and on again – a common strategy to gain the attention of a Deaf room. No bulbs needed warming up time or flickered while switching on.

I do not doubt that if you wanted to talk to somebody about that building (if you haven't already), [Redacted] would be delighted. He was the first (and still only) Deaf service manager in the NHS. His emails are below.

All such adaptations are, well, not adaptations; and they are not “for deaf staff”. They are for visual/sighted staff, which means everybody, and it is that which will make the rebuild inclusive and equal. Building ramps next to steps highlights a problem and adapts around it, whereas creating an entrance without steps makes it inclusive and equal. So it is with the Deaf community. Everyone has the capacity for visual (signed) communication, whereas Deaf people have by definition no or limited capacity for auditory communication. Everybody in the building will be sighted. Removing the aural and replacing with or highlighting the visual is paramount.

The key to the healthy development of Deaf people is fostering pride in their visual capacity and not constantly presenting them with unnecessary situations in which they are handicapped. I use the term wisely (WHO definitions... Impairment: Loss of cochlear hairs - Disability: Unable to functionally hear speech frequencies at sufficient volume or fidelity - Handicap: Difficulty communicating with people who do not Sign.) Were we to teach BSL in schools instead of French, the handicap would disappear and the impairment and disability irrelevant. It is this social factor that is highlighted in a building where those handicapping issues are removed, and our staff will be reminded on a day-to-day basis that it is not Deafness per se that is the problem. This does not currently happen – in an Academy where staff still (if they remember) book interpreters “for the deaf person” rather than for the person who cannot Sign.

You didn't ask for an essay, and for that I apologise.


Jim CromwellComment