Deafness and Other Disabilities Shaping Our Architecture

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Robison Wells

Jeffrey Mansfield, a design director who was born Deaf, is keenly aware of how some architecture serves to set the disabled free and some stifles and traps them. Influencing work at the MASS Design Group put him on course to enter a multi-year course of research exploring how deafness has shaped space (or been shaped by it). For his work, he was recently awarded the Disability Futures Fellowship from the Ford Foundation.

He plans to use the grant money to develop an archive of what he calls “Deaf spaces.” This includes such stellar examples as the world-renowned Wyoming School for the Deaf, as well as school and spaces that alienated the Deaf and left them vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

“If I have learned one thing from growing up at a Deaf school and visiting dozens of others as a student, it’s that our community is far from a monolith,” Mansfield explains in a written response to Fast Company. “It is abundant with narratives and experiences of identity, belonging, trauma and healing. Yet dominant narratives around deafness very seldom reflect the rich complexity of the Deaf experience, and has, in many ways, marginalized countless voices within the Deaf community, particularly in America.”

When asked what this has to do with architecture, Mansfield responds “Deaf space design incorporates Deaf ways of being and is largely shaped by sign language use. Spatial qualities that are key to communicating through sign language—including constant eye contact, a certain distance between people, spaciousness, clear sightlines, continuity of movement, generous daylighting, and diffuse lighting that is free of glare and harsh shadows, and warm materials—all lend [themselves] to spaces that are more organic and sensory-centered than we might normally see in orthogonal spaces and buildings and on our streets. Abundant sensory experience, delight, vibrancy, and resonance are key aspects of Deaf space. In addition, agency and representation are crucial in inspiring a sense of belonging and self-worth.”

He hopes that his work will reach Deaf and disabled designers and architects and the mainstream. “In creating the Deaf Space Archive, I hope to introduce a platform to gather localized narratives that complement or challenge our understanding of how spaces shape Deafness and how Deafness shapes our world.”

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