This is a guest post by Camilla Payne. Camilla is an Urban Planning student at the University of Auckland.
In my life, I walk with my feet split between two worlds. One hearing world and one deaf. Sometimes I identify myself as deaf. Sometimes I feel more hard-of-hearing, and as the state likes to point out, ‘disabled’. I have worn hearing aids since I was a child. I was raised in a hearing culture, in the dominant hearing world. Although advanced hearing aid technology has afforded me the ability to largely pass as a hearing person, my life experience has made me acutely aware of the differences between how hearing and deaf people experience space. My regular day-to-day life flows on the invisible undercurrent of stepping between these two worlds. There are often times I feel unsafe walking around my city and in urban environments, a sense of heightened vulnerability because it’s easy to miss little or big things going on around me. The necessity to always stay alert slowly chips away at my energy levels, and by midday I’m already starting to wane.
Our cities and urban environments are simply not built with non-able-bodied people in mind. Here, I attempt to express what this means to me as a hard of hearing person living in a hearing world in Tamaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. The challenges I face along with so many others highlight the opportunities Auckland Council, planners, architects, and designers have to improve our public spaces for everyone.
d/Deaf and hard of hearing (d/DHH) populations tend to navigate their urban environments differently than otherwise able-bodied people and this will inherently impact how safe they feel in public spaces. It is important for me to affirm that while hearing loss is widely viewed as exactly that, a loss, it is not advantageous to anyone, d/DHH or hearing, to view it in such a way. Instead, we should recognise that our urban environments are largely designed by and for the hearing person and hearing culture.
Challenges for those of us who have hearing loss are not limited to communication barriers. While a hearing person may be able to easily distinguish between background sounds, conversation and peripheral sounds a d/DHH person must expend a significant amount of psychological energy in an attempt to do the same. Every experience of hearing loss varies, and my words here are based on my own personal experiences and views. They do not define anyone else’s. Amanda Kolson Hurley (2015) explains that hearing loss “isn’t a straightforward matter of all sounds being muffled or fading out. It’s a broad spectrum, from slight impairment to profound deafness. Often, it’s surprisingly noisy. Different noises override one another, and in fact, you can hear too much noise or distortion of noise.” Hurley helps us to understand that the d/DHH experience of an urban environment does not mean silent and neither does it mean hearing. This highly subjective middle ground is what makes hearing loss a difficult condition to understand without personal experience.
Navigating urban life poses many invisible challenges for d/DHH. Sensory stressors that naturally occur in urban environments are chaotic, often intensified by hearing instruments like hearing aids or cochlear implants. Sensory processing can be an intense, stressful and constant activity. Poor urban design exacerbates these issues for many d/DHH and often puts our safety at risk. Poorly designed or non-existent cycle lanes provide a clear example. Without good hearing it may be difficult for cyclists to identify the proximity, speed and reactions of cars nearby them. These stresses and safety risks could be reduced through designing cycle lanes to be protected with clear visual signalling for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians.
The psychological stress that accumulates from the need to be hyper-aware of our surroundings is highlighted through the NZ Crime and Victims Survey (2018) which states that people who are ‘psychologically stressed’ are more likely to experience crime. While there is currently very little local research concerning d/DHH perception of fear in urban environments, d/DHH people are marginalized as part of the greater ‘disabled’ population, who are 4.2 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime (Statistics NZ, 2013). Marginalization and discrimination may occur in a variety of ways, but systemic and institutionalized marginalization can be some of the most disempowering, in particular the inability to exist safely in our built environments. The need to be hyper aware of your surroundings as a d/DHH person is more often about survival than enjoyment of space.
The ‘curb cut’ revolutions of the 1970s led by Ed Roberts in California led to acknowledgement of wheelchair users’ experience of space, improving the daily lives of wheelchair users worldwide. The acknowledgement of blind and partially-sighted populations’ experience of space led to the implementation of various tactile-based installations that have since become commonplace, including textured sidewalk transitions and audio-signals at pedestrian crossings. These adaptations pose the question: how can we improve urban spaces for those with other kinds of disabilities, perhaps for those of us who are non-hearing?
Academics at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC coined the term DeafSpace: “An approach to architecture and design that is primarily informed by the unique ways in which Deaf people perceive and inhabit space.” (Vox, 2016) It focuses on a multi-sensory approach to the experience and design of space. DeafSpace guidelines encompass several key areas of interest:
These principles may be applied to urban design, architecture, and landscape architecture to be more inclusive of non-hearing people and aim to create safer and more enjoyable spaces for everyone.
The Gallaudet University campus in Washington DC, designed by Hansel Bauman (2005), provides a precedent of thoughtful application of DeafSpace principles in an architectural and urban design context and can be explored in more detail through Gallaudet University literature. Their design clearly acknowledged differences in d/DHH communication and movement styles, featuring:
- ‘conversation circles’,
- indirect lighting to minimize shadows,
- walkways with clear visual signalling, and
- strategic placement of mirrors and lights.
Deaf landscape architecture graduate Alexa Vaughn coined the term DeafScape, an application of DeafSpace principles to urban landscapes that demonstrate their potential in creating safer public spaces for d/DHH communities.
Currently, there isn’t much substantial research regarding the experience of space for d/DHH people in Aotearoa. Unfortunately, there is also little record of the application of deaf architecture or urban design in the Aotearoa context. This lack of data makes it difficult to understand the role that DeafSpace principles may have in our national and local contexts. However, lessons learned from Gallaudet University’s research and integration of these design principles offer insight into the potential of what Aotearoa’s cities could be like.
Auckland is often described as a diverse, inclusive city, with ‘improving liveability’ included as one of the goals of Auckland Council over the next 10 years. DeafSpace principles offer an opportunity to move a little closer to that. An inclusive city does not discriminate against perceived ‘ability’ and planners, architects and designers must open their minds to what they can learn from d/DHH culture and our experiences of space. By considering the accessibility and experience of space for our less-abled bodied and neurodiverse communities, we improve the safety and liveability of our urban spaces for everyone.
- deaf: severe/profound hearing loss, may/may not use aids or use sign language.
- Deaf: severe/profound hearing loss, lives within Deaf culture, often sign language as first language.
- HH: hard of hearing: mild-moderate hearing loss, may/may not use aids.
- d/DHH: abbreviated term, including and acknowledging all types of hearing loss
 Hurley, A. K. (2015). What It’s Like To Be Hearing Impaired in a Big, Dense City. https://www.citylab.com/design/2015/09/what-its-like-to-be-hearing-impaired-in-the-city/405631/
 DeafSpace Principles. Gallaudet University.