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Designing spaces for hearing impaired

Smarter Architecture for Everyone – Especially the Hearing-Impaired
Feb, 09, 2020

Learn how savvy architects and designers are creating environments that are more inclusive of the hearing impaired. 

Have you ever found yourself sitting in a restaurant, leaning in and shouting at your tablemates because the music suddenly jumped up five notches and everyone else’s conversations just got a little bit louder? Now imagine that situation for someone with impaired hearing. Unpleasant doesn’t even begin to describe it. 

The good news is, there’s a shift happening in the world of architecture and interior design, with more professionals paying attention to creating rooms that work for the hearing impaired. And what’s more, designing these kinds of spaces actually benefits everyone. 

Think of it this way: even if you can detour around a massive obstacle to get from point A to point B, wouldn’t life be easier if someone just moved the obstacle? Everyone’s happier; everyone’s life is improved. Here are some ways architects and designers are designing spaces that are more sensory-aware.

It all started with ‘DeafSpace Design’

In 2005, architect Hansel Bauman began working with the American Sign Language (ASL) Deaf Studies department at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. His brief? To develop architectural guidelines that would improve how deaf people interact with their manmade surroundings. The result was DeafSpace Design, a framework of more than 150 design elements that impacts how the hearing-impaired experience a space.

DeafSpace – five key areas addressed:

  • Space and proximity – allowing enough room for ‘signing space’ to facilitate communication via eye contact and sign language

  • Mobility and proximity – helping people move through a space while maintaining both conversation and awareness of the environment. 

  • Sensory reach – allowing for higher sensitivities to visual and tactile cues, such as the movements of shadows, vibrations, or even subtle shifts in the expressions and positions of other people.

  • Light and colour – eliminating strange shadows, too much glare and backlighting, which can disrupt visual communication and cause eye strain. 

  • Acoustics – paying increased attention to sound (including background noise), which can be distracting or even painful, especially for people with hearing aids
Finding it difficult to hear with background noise? Take Our Online Hearing Test

So how does this work in the real world?

If you speak with your hands… Then you need room to express yourself. Anything that restricts your movement or comes between you and the person you’re talking to is basically an interruption. Need to stop signing to open a door? Imagine how much more inclusive automatic sliding doors can be. 

If reading lips and body language helps you communicate… Then, big surprise, you need to be able to see a person’s face when you’re having a conversation. That means things like staircases, narrow hallways and awkwardly placed support walls and beams are barriers for communication – not just movement. A better alternative? Lots of ramps, wide corridors and big open spaces. 

If you can’t hear things like doors being open and shut… Then you need a way to know when people are entering or leaving your space (unless you like being constantly surprised). Many people experiencing hearing loss rely on 360-degree spatial awareness to navigate an environment, so rooms and walls with opaque or frosted glass allow people to use shadows and movement to anticipate people coming and going. For meetings, open-plan rooms, where everyone sits in a circle to engage, work best.

If you rely heavily on your vision to navigate a space… Then you need reduced glare and backlighting for your eyes to stay fresh. Soft, diffused daylight helps reduce eye fatigue, so if you can, plan your workspace around rooms with angled windows and more natural sunlight. Also, like any paint company will tell you, colour matters – though less for setting the mood and more for clear communication. Hues that contrast with skin tones – blues, greens and yellows – are better than pinks and oranges for making sure signing and facial expressions are visible. 

And if you have a hearing aid… Then you know just how important acoustics are (and how awful and painful reverb can be). A panelled ceiling or acoustic blanket installed under the floor can work wonders by reducing the reverberation caused by sound waves bouncing off hard surfaces. Who likes hearing loud footsteps upstairs, anyway? 

DeafSpace design: smarter spaces

Loud restaurants or open-plan offices with boisterous chatter are tricky to navigate for the hearing-impaired, but it’s nothing better design can’t fix. Some architects and designers are gradually moving towards creating inclusive audio spaces. DeafSpace’s design principles were created to improve how areas are designed for the hard of hearing, but they’re just good design principles, period. Rooms with lighting that are easier on the eyes, have ample space for self-expression, and better acoustics with less reverberation, all allow everyone to be included in the conversation.

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