Beyond ADA: Accessible Design for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Community

News & Insights

In our work designing signage, wayfinding, and other forms of communication within the built environment, we are always mindful of how people perceive and connect with that communication. We constantly evaluate the way colors, shapes, materials, textures, images, and words engage the user’s senses and communicate the intended story or message.

What happens when one of a user’s senses — for example, their hearing or sight — is diminished? How can we design better experiences for more people?

Inspired to learn more by a close friend who identifies as a child of deaf adults (CODA), I’ve been working to understand the challenges that many people still face and what we — as designers of experiences — can do in practice. The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design address communication elements, including a requirement for certain signs to feature both visual and tactile characters. But for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (HoH) community, ADA’s provisions for “effective means of communication” typically rely on sign language interpreters, real-time captioning, and other written materials. As designers, we have to think beyond ADA.

The DeafSpace Project aims to fill some of these gaps. Established in the early 2000s by architect Hansel Bauman in conjunction with the ASL Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University, the DeafSpace guidelines address deaf users’ five major touchpoints with the built environment:

Open spaces that ease sign language communication between levels; abundant natural light and high-contrast wall colors that improve visibility; and curved walls and flexible seating areas that facilitate both mobility and visual communication all come together to enhance comfort and accessibility for a wider range of users. (Rendering of possible design ideas generated by Altitude)

All of these factors contribute to individuals’ experiences within spaces and must be considered if we are genuinely motivated to design for anyone and everyone. It’s not about making each person’s experience the same — it’s about acknowledging differences and helping each person feel like they have opportunity and autonomy. I’m optimistic that conditions will improve as we continue to gain greater awareness of different perspectives, the responsibility we have to design more equitable experiences, and the power we have to promote change.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caitlin Schneider (member, SEGD) is a designer with more than ten years of experience connecting people, places, and brands. She’s skilled at creating concepts in both two and three dimensions for all channels — ranging from print and digital to high impact signage — and conducts extensive research to support strategy, design, and documentation. With a deep background in branded environments, architectural signage, wayfinding, and identity design for a variety of clients, Caitlin is a strong collaborator motivated to create architecturally integrated design solutions. She is passionate and curious about inclusive design, healthier materials, and sustainable practices.