Architects design with sight-, hearing-impaired in mind


Robert McConnell lives with other deaf or signing roommates but plans to move to a new condominium project that will cater specifically to the deaf and hard of hearing. (Susan Biddle/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 26, 2012

Many Washingtonians know the hassle of finding an affordable apartment building — especially one that’s managed by an accommodating landlord. But for deaf tenants such as Robert McConnell, the D.C. housing game presents a unique set of challenges.

The typical roommate search is complicated by the need for each resident to speak American Sign Language. Getting a leaky faucet repaired sometimes involves lengthy pen-and-paper exchanges with supers who don’t sign.

When Melissa Malzkuhn, a deaf woman who lives on H Street, was scouting for apartments, she was dismayed to find that the old-fashioned layouts prevented roommates from signing easily with one another.

“Many places here are . . . room, room, room and a long hallway,” she said. “It’s hard to get peoples’ attention. Deaf-friendly means [your roommate] can see you.”

McConnell even wired a custom light-based doorbell and fire alarm system into the group home he shares with other deaf professionals because the setup didn’t come with his lease.

The challenges of being a deaf tenant in a hearing world are one reason that McConnell is looking forward to a new Columbia Heights affordable-housing building in the works that will cater specifically to the deaf and hard-of-hearing demographic.

The 28-unit, $11.5-million Justice Park building will have a video-based door buzzer, open floor plans to facilitate signing, fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors that operate an eyelid-piercing strobe light in every room and a two-level courtyard that allows residents to congregate and communicate in sign language.

Though the building won’t open until late next year, McConnell is eager to fill out the rental paperwork.

“This is a big thing that’s going to make life much more convenient,” said McConnell, 28, who works at home as an account executive for Deaf411, a nationwide marketing agency.

“If Justice Park becomes what I hope it will be, I’ll likely end up living near a number of clients and colleagues — where we can easily find ourselves in positions where we, as neighbors, can help support each other economically, so much like similar minority communities have done in D.C. for years,” added McConnell, who communicates to non-signing people through an interpreter and e-mail.

Universal design — the architectural concept of making accessibility features ubiquitous and attractive — has long been a trend in real estate. But some developers are now taking accessibility a step further, targeting specific communities in the hopes of cracking niche markets.

“Between the deaf and blind and seniors, you’re seeing the market react to individuals who want to stay in the District,” said Senthil Sankaran, director of development for D.C.’s Office for Planning and Economic Development.

Dantes Partners, a D.C. developer whose focus is workforce housing in D.C., won the bid to build Justice Park on a District-owned, run-down park that had become an eyesore. Dantes CEO Buwa Binitie had lower-income residents in mind — the building will be limited to individuals who make about $60,000 a year or less — but he also thought making a deaf-accessible building would differentiate Dantes from the other bids.

“We knew that others were going to propose a high-end condo building in Columbia Heights,” he said. “We had to take a different track that was going to distinguish us.”

Justice Park will be the first commercial building in D.C. specifically geared toward deaf people, who make up 2.4 percent of the city’s population. A deaf-oriented dorm at Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf and hearing-impaired, opened in August, and the Justice Park building borrows from some of its “deaf space” elements, such as the focus on bright, open spaces and materials that prevent distortion in hearing aides.

Architects’ new strategies

While there are a number of D.C. residences designed for the aging or disabled — complete with grab bars, lower countertops and larger bathrooms — architects employ a different strategy when designing for the deaf or blind.

Because both blind and hard-of-hearing people can learn to navigate their environments with the same physical dexterity as their seeing and hearing counterparts, architects designing for these groups try to create attractive, modern spaces that would appeal to any resident — but which also include “nice-to-have” features for those who can’t rely on sight or sound.

At Justice Park, wider-than-average, well-lit corridors will allow residents to walk and sign side by side without bumping into things. Bright colors inside the apartments will help make signing more visible, while matte paint, rather than glossy, will reduce glare.

With its open floor plans, kitchens will flow into living rooms and out onto a balcony.

“You need to be able to see someone say, ‘Hey, the Redskins just scored!’” said Glen Sutcliffe, a real estate agent with W.C. & A.N. Miller Realtors, who is hard of hearing and works on leasing and marketing for Justice Park.

But not all architects agree with creating separate housing for the blind and disabled, saying the ideal approach would be to introduce the universal design elements into existing buildings where such people already are residing.

“Universal design is a seamless integration of design features in a house to benefit users of all ages and all abilities,” said Laura Montllor, an architect and executive director of homefreehome.org, a Long Island, N.Y.-based group that promotes housing designs to help disabled people live independently. “We should stop thinking of people living with disabilities as individuals living alone. . . . In reality they are living with families and in a community” with people who are not disabled.

Some deaf advocates, though, praised the building’s built-in safety features.

“I know of deaf people who have died because they never heard an audible carbon monoxide alarm,” said Lise Hamlin, director of public policy for the Hearing Loss Association of America. “There is a need for housing that makes considerations for people with hearing loss.”

Although the Americans With Disabilities Act requires landlords to make “reasonable accommodations” for deaf or blind tenants, McConnell and others say getting landlords to provide visual door buzzers, fire alarms and other devices can be a slog. Landlords are sometimes unfamiliar with the law or are reluctant to make changes.

“It’s a lot easier to find something that is all-inclusive,” McConnell said, “than to face the aggravations of having to go after all of those things every time.”

Holding onto history

Across town in Georgetown, Sorg Architects is using similarly low-profile modifications in its renovation of the Hurt Home, a former school for the blind that’s being converted into a 15-unit condo building. In a nod to the property’s history, developer Argos Group is adding elements to the building that will accommodate the blind and visually impaired.

“We’re looking at contrasting textures and colors on floor material where they transition from the lobby to the corridor to the individual units for better mental mapping for individuals,” said Sorg studio director Rachel Chung.

Bright overhead lights will illuminate doorways and entrances to make it easier for residents who have little sight to find keys and open locks. Designers are outfitting the appliances with manual, rather than digital, controls and are adding Braille signage throughout the building.

“Our firm is a big promoter of universal design — it’s not that we add specific things for the disabled,” Chung said. “This is just good architecture.”

Unlike the renovated Hurt building, however, Justice Park is being specifically marketed to the deaf community, although units will be available for any qualified lessees who meet the income limit.

Sutcliffe is publicizing the building on social media and through deaf associations to ensure that interested deaf people get their applications in early.

Living near others who speak sign language is important, Sutcliffe said, and historically D.C.’s deaf have clustered in Northeast near Gallaudet.

McConnell, who now lives just across the street from Gallaudet, said he hopes Justice Park will allow D.C.’s deaf to find a new enclave in a different part of the city.

“Maybe more deaf people could get integrated into other parts of D.C.,” he said. “If we are out and about and socializing together, maybe the deaf and hearing community will be able to understand each other better.”

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